Wednesday, October 1, 2014

From the House

Bluffton Today

The traffic situation at the north end of the Buckwalter parkway, involving Berkeley Hall, St. Gregory the Great Catholic Church, the fire station, and Eagle’s Point, seems to be nearing a solution. It is an imperfect solution, but immeasurably better than what is currently there. The traffic signal will vastly improve safety at the cost of some hindrance to traffic flow. In my view, this is a prudent and humane bargain.


Interestingly, this is pretty much the same solution that was hammered out six years ago, although the real genesis of the problem was many years earlier. Traffic planners usually agree that major arterial highways are more efficient with frontage roads to space out the access points, among other benefits. At that time, virtually no one wanted frontage roads. Property owners wanted to maximize value of their land. Developers wanted to reduce their land costs. The public didn’t like the tax implications and public officials at all levels could not envision the growth of Bluffton, although they talked about it all the time.


As a consequence, what was initially an inconvenience, eventually turned into a potential disaster. After six years of wrangling, the least bad option is now the best option, although far from optimal. The good news is that reasonable folks realized they simply had to compromise if there was going to be any improvement before the inevitable catastrophe.


As a parishioner of St. Gregory, I was more than passing familiar with the situation. Many times I have offered my good offices in an effort to break the logjam, to avoid expensive litigation, and to reduce the growing risk. Recently, the logjam began to break up. A more cooperative spirit was evident among the parties, which allowed your delegation to bring state resources to bear. Working together, we got it done.


As much as I appreciate the many positive emails and calls, as well as some less than positive calls, it was the softening of formerly rigid positions that led to this progress. While I was a part of the process, your local statehouse delegation, Senator Davis, Representative Newton and this legislator, always try to work as a team. Together, we get much more done if we cooperate, and work to minimize any differences we might have over the details. Might even be a lesson in there somewhere.


At the risk of stretching the comparison, the education situation in Jasper County did not begin with the reapportionment that created our current House districts two years ago. In truth, this is a problem of generations, not years. As more school parents and other residents and stakeholders have come to realize, without a good quality, basic education, our young people will not be prepared for the demands of work and citizenship. In my view, the ongoing efforts seemingly to reduce the public’s participation are misguided. The pathway to improvement is through greater public participation, toward a fuller understanding that we are all stakeholders in the success of these children.


Just this week, your delegation was an integral part of the mediation mandated by Judge Gergel regarding the ACLU suit and the upcoming school board redistricting. I am confident that an essential feature of this process will be a dramatic expansion of the public’s role, not only at the school board, but county council, as well as at our delegation meetings.


Friends, whether it is the placement of a controversial traffic signal, or drawing the lines of voting districts, we must talk with one another in good faith. We must understand that compromise is not surrender; it is the beginning of the way forward. The more folks with open minds and open hearts that are charged with a task, no matter how complex or difficult, the more likely we are to succeed.

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

From the House

Bluffton Today

I was expecting a few extra calls this week after the recent Jasper county events. As it turned out, my expectations were entirely too modest. There were a ton of calls and emails, as well as lots of visitors to the office and well-wishers around town. A good many people, especially those who saw the various videos of the event, thought it was funny, and I guess it was, in a kind of farcical way. The fact is that it trained a spotlight on what we had been hearing from many parents and other residents concerning a lack of basic transparency in the Jasper School Board.


I think it also emphasized the fact that public meetings are for the benefit of the public, and not for the folks on the dais. The fact of using law enforcement resources to bodily remove members of the public from public meetings is kind of scary, not to mention embarrassing for those sheriff’s deputies. They knew their job was catching bad guys, not suppressing dissent at public meetings. In truth, they were very kind, almost apologetic, during the whole thing.


You know, sometimes it takes a catalyzing event such as this to prompt the changes to our system that everyone knows need to happen. That said, when the fellows with the firearms at their sides start ejecting citizens who clap for ideas unappreciated by the chairperson of any public meeting, we are almost inviting unintended and usually untoward events.


Last week, I received the largest and most delicious fruit basket ever. It was from the young woman whom Representative Newton and I rose to support at the abovementioned meeting. She was obviously shaken by the incident, but her gift to this representative was as tasty as it was unexpected. I will certainly report it on my ethics forms, as it was a huge and elaborate presentation. As much as I appreciate the sentiment, we were there to do the jobs we were elected to do. Doing the right thing doesn’t require compensation, but to my mind, it was an act of grateful sweetness, and I was touched.


The bulk of your delegation rode to Columbia together for a meeting last week. We discussed our strategy for the mediation, which will be to encourage as much public participation as possible. We will make a few proposals, but hope that the preponderance of ideas will come from the public. I have faith that the Jasper county citizenry, aware of the importance of education as the way for their children to advance in the world, will demand an end to the current regime. If I am disappointed, I will still hold whoever is elected to current standards of electoral propriety.


In statehouse matters, I have been appointed to the certificate of need task force. My mail is already heavy with hospital and clinic correspondence. I have urged the new speaker, my friend Jay Lucas, to also appoint Representative Weston Newton to both the ethics and Department of Transportation (DOT) task forces. Weston has experience and skills that make him essential to these committees.


Don’t forget the Friends of the Bluffton Dog Park event, Saturday, October 11, from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. at the Promenade in Old Town Bluffton. For more information call Cheryl Rauch at either 815-2333 or 540- 9988.


Also, the 7th Annual Friends of Waddell fundraising event will be Sunday, 9 November, from 3 to 7 p.m. at the Waddell headquarters on the high bluff at the end of Sawmill Creek Road in Greater Bluffton. This is a very popular event, largely owing to the fact that Chef Mike Sigler will be doing many of his signature dishes of fresh, local seafood. For more information and to make reservations, call my buddy Dave Harter at 785-4106 or email daveh@hargray.com.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

From the House

Bluffton Today

Thanks to all for the great responses to last week’s column. With all the sound and fury recently about economic development, and how we need to be prepared to put up vast sums of taxpayer dollars to attract good local jobs, I think it is important to offer an example of job creation done in a more traditional way. Not to say that incentives don’t have a place, but for me, the greatest incentives for entrepreneurs to locate or relocate to Beaufort County are our quality of life, our educational assets, and the fact that so many people are moving here and bringing their skills and education with them. With that in mind, we may need to begin retooling or expanding the scope of our economic development efforts.


Last week, I promised to update the educational situation in Jasper County. I am happy to say that there is good news to report.


You may recall that Senator Pinckney (D-Jasper Co.), in the waning hours of the last session, brought forth a redistricting plan for the Jasper School Board. His plan was also encased in a lawsuit by the ACLU that said the current districts violated the “one man, one vote” standard of the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment. When viewed by the rest of the Jasper legislative delegation, the plan also seemed deeply political and a vivid example of extreme gerrymandering. What we vehemently disagreed with was also the fact that it was done with zero input from the folks who will have to live with the consequences of the plan.


Representative Weston Newton and I derailed the Pinckney plan in the House, and requested that the House of Representatives intervene in the suit. We agreed the districts were malapportioned, but also felt that public input was critical to the drawing of new districts, rather than one person drawing the map and having the ACLU impose it through the courts. In our view, the most salutary part of any redistricting effort is hearing from the public. The Pinckney plan failed in that regard.


The result of the intervention of the legal staff of the House of Representatives was to place the ACLU suit before U.S. District Judge Richard Gergel for review. He granted the ACLU motion that the current districts were malapportioned. We agreed. Our plan was to allow the General Assembly to fulfill its constitutional mandate by drawing the districts. If we could not, then the courts could step in. He also enjoined the November elections until a new map was approved. Judge Gergel agreed with us that public hearings were crucial to the process. If this were a game of pool, you could say we ran the table.


As if to place an exclamation point on the public input portion of the matter, an incident occurred as Rep. Newton and I attended the Jasper School Board meeting of 9 Sept. At a packed meeting, the chairperson of the board, Ms. Bertie Riley, ordered the Jasper Sheriff’s Deputies to remove a resident for clapping for a comment the chairperson found disrespectful. Rep. Newton and I stood to defend the right of the resident to clap for whomever she pleased. The chairperson chose to also have deputies remove Rep. Newton and myself as well. Not only was she out of line, her egregious overreach and arrogance seemed to break the spell. There will be new districts, new elections, and I imagine there will be a host of new candidates. The era of failure after failure is over. The politics of the few, ill serving the many is done. This is the new beginning.

More details next week.

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

From the House

Bluffton Today

For those who may have followed this column for a while, you know my thinking about jobs and job creation. Decent jobs are the foundation of any community. Good jobs foster stable families, and stable families make for good neighborhoods. They require less policing, less social services, and also support good schools, not only with taxes, but parental participation.


In my work life, I have had a chain of bike shops, a bunch of brewpubs, and more than a few restaurants. I know the importance of making payroll, because those payroll dollars get spread around the community. They buy groceries, pay for health care, haircuts, clothes, and all those things we need. It is also a serious responsibility. There have been more times than I would like to remember, when I made payroll, but I didn’t get paid. That’s just the way it is sometimes.


Recently I have been approached by various entrepreneurs, wandering about the Old Town, looking at the retail and service mix, chatting with folks, and generally checking out our version of prosperity. They are doing their due diligence before making investments in new stores or shops or restaurants. One of these folks came to visit my office in the Promenade and wanted some hard numbers on how many people work in the development, has it increased recently and by how much. Of course, I didn’t have hard numbers, or even soft numbers, because my model is to create a space for a business, and then let them take care of the details. It did, however, pique my curiosity.


Consequently, I walked around the Promenade and took an informal survey, about as unscientific as it could be. I made sure not to count the construction workers, as they will be somewhere else next month. I only counted full-time employees, and part-timers, who may or may not want to be full timers. The results were startling to say the least. The overall number was around 275 to 300, but that was not really the surprise.


We have an amazing mix of people working in just our one part of Old Town Bluffton. We have 15-year-old part-timers, whose parents have allowed them to work on condition they keep their school work up. At the other end of the spectrum, there are folks in their much later years that either need to work for financial reasons, or want to work because they just want to remain a part of the real life of commerce. There are young people like Chris Epps, who, along with his wife, are entrepreneurs and business people on Calhoun Street, but his architecture office is in the Promenade. Chris grew up in Bluffton, and he is exactly where he wants to be.

Folks, we have a work force that almost exactly mirrors the demographics of our area. We have people of every age group, gender, race, or political persuasion. The truly amazing part of this is that it is a naturally occurring distribution. We are not responding to any quotas or mandates. Our business owners simply are looking for dependable people who can do a consistently good job at what they are hired to do. In my view, that’s the way to run an economy.


This week, we say “goodbye and thank you” to my friend Anthony Barrett, who is retiring after a very productive tenure as Bluffton Town Manager. There is no doubt that his successor, Marc Orlando, will carry on the good work. Marc is experienced, supremely competent, and well liked. We all have great expectations.


Next time, more on a potential big win for Jasper school parents and other stakeholders.