Thursday, August 30, 2012

From the House

Bluffton Today

We are continuing to get a great deal of commentary from you on the river-related topics, but I’m going to shift the focus for a week or two to other areas while we digest and organize the information. As we begin the planning for the new session, I want to compare my constituent contacts with some from other legislators with an eye toward those areas that seem to be most common around the state. Please continue to comment. This issue is far from completion.

With the start of schools around the area, please be aware that early morning and mid-afternoon traffic congestion is going to be more prevalent. Please be patient. School buses always have the right of way, so be on the lookout for slow traffic and frequent stops and starts. A moment of inattention can lead to a lifetime of regret.

Speaking of schools, we are starting to get a fair bit of feedback from our Virtual Schools program. This alternative is part of the state Charter School District and is enjoying a lot of positive attention from parents and education analysts. Being relatively new, all our data are inconclusive at this point but there is good potential, especially with motivated parents. I have some friends over on Daufuskie Island who are utilizing the Virtual Schools protocols with good success. In my view, it is important to have a spectrum of sound education possibilities to allow parents to find what may be optimum for their children or their circumstances. It is just a commonsense approach to tailor the schooling to the child rather than force all kids into the same old choices, especially since the old system is not currently enjoying universal success.

Having said that, we are still pursuing parity of funding for our local schools relative to the rest of the state. While we make incremental progress, it is a little frustrating when I think that I have been working on this simple issue for almost ten years.

This year, because of redistricting, my legislative responsibilities extend to a fairly large area of Jasper County in addition to Bluffton and Greater Bluffton. To that end, I have been speaking with a fair number of parents in Hardeeville and the unincorporated parts of Jasper. I am hearing a good deal of concern that there are elements of entrenched educational bureaucracy that are not as open to positive change as they might be. This is not a feature that is isolated to one county, but seems to be the rule rather than the exception, particularly in the more rural parts of the state. These areas seem also to be more likely to underperform in the educational metrics we value.

This points to the challenge of providing remedial specialists where required, without sacrificing opportunities for the average and advanced students. It seems clear that the older models of educational organization are simply not geared to effectively handle the requirements of such a wide spectrum of divergent needs. We may well be in for a generation or more of educational experimentation. Because our economic success is so closely tied to how well we prepare the next generation, the urgency of this mission cannot be overstated.

We all wish this were as simple as appropriating more dollars. It is not. We must be prepared to try different approaches, to keep rigorous metrics, and finally arrive at a system that enables each child to find their best life.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

From the House

Bluffton Today

Once again, Al Stokes and his crew at the Waddell Mariculture Center are in the news. Unfortunately, it was sad news in that a pair of dead dolphins were found in the May River. The ever-vigilant Jimmy McIntire observed the dolphins while out fishing. One of the beautiful creatures was located and taken to the research station at the end of Sawmill Creek Rd.

One of the many things Al Stokes and his scientists do is perform necropsies on sea mammal corpses that turn up in area waters or on our beaches. Information gleaned from this important work helps to give an early warning if diseases or parasites are impacting local fish or marine mammal populations. This is in addition to the great work they do with the various restocking programs they maintain.

As many of you know, the Waddell Center has done superior work for years in supporting the billion-dollar sportfishing industry in our state. It is one of this legislator’s proudest achievements to have finally gotten a fairly predictable appropriation schedule to allow this outstanding facility to continue to do what it does. For years, Al and crew made do with what grants, appropriations, and single-year provisos we were able to send their way. This year, I was able to secure additional dollars for this high-performing asset. If you and I got a return on our investments like South Carolina gets on our contributions to the Waddell Center, we would be playing bridge with Bill Gates and Warren Buffett.

We continue to get a big number of calls and emails concerning my request for your comments on the unsafe boating issue. To your credit, most of what we are hearing now is not simply complaints, but suggestions about how we can effectively address the issue without diminishing the pleasure we all get from an afternoon on the river. A great example of how things should work in Bluffton comes from my good friend Carolyn Smith and her All Joy Beach Committee. They have been vocal in their disapproval of the general deterioration of courtesy and good practice on the waterway. They also have volunteered to help structure any changes to the applicable law that we might be considering. Friends, this is how it’s supposed to work.

I want to give you a heads-up on some cool events. Newly elected Old Town Merchants Society President Rodney Vaughn announced that “Beer and Brats” will be held Saturday, 22 Sept. at the Promenade. Rodney is also featured in the hilarious May River Theater production of “The Producers” which runs through this Sunday, 26 August. As always, Jody and Ed DuPuis put on a great show.

Coming up on Sat., 15 Sept. is the annual Beach Sweep/River Sweep, put on by the Sea Grant Consortium and South Carolina Dept. of Natural Resources. Be at Oyster Factory Park at 9 a.m. prepared to do some good for the river. If you have boats or kayaks, bring them. For details, call Kim Jones of the Town of Bluffton at 706-4593 or email kjones@townofbluffton.com. Please join me, and presumptive House Seat 120 Representative Weston Newton, along with other delegation members, for this important workday.

Finally, most of you know that Bluffton is now actively promoted by three Chambers of Commerce: the Hilton Head/Bluffton Chamber, the Greater Bluffton Chamber, as well as the Beaufort Regional Chamber. Three chambers, three approaches, with one mission: grow and refine local business.

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

From the House

Bluffton Today

As always, when I ask for feedback, we get prepared for the consequences. The combination of Sunday’s front-page BT article and the column made for an interesting week of constituent contact. We got over 300 contacts and the phones and email are still burning. Suffice to say that many of our calls were from folks with bad stories to tell. There were stories of damaged docks, damaged boats, near-death situations on the water, and the whole gamut of complaint having to do with bad behavior on the water. In truth, the level of anger over the lack of courtesy from boaters was a little unsettling.

On the other side, we heard from a fair number of people who didn’t relish the idea of possibly being ticketed or inconvenienced for being on video doing that which they probably knew they shouldn’t be doing anyway. I suppose it’s the old tree falling in the woods question, except now it’s more like “if I do something out of sight of law enforcement, did it really happen?” It is a peculiar line of reasoning but buried in there someplace is a point.

The anger and the back and forth over whether cameras are a fair tool for law enforcement is exactly why I asked for your take on the situation. The truth is, when we make law out of anger, it is rarely good law. We don’t think it through. It is all about the emotion of the moment. My thinking is we should hash it out in the paper, at the Squat and Gobble, or over a rib plate at Bluffton Barbeque. Sometimes you just have to get mad when the other folks’ bad behavior seems to be the normal mode of acting. When the anger subsides, then we will make a good faith effort of come up with a solution that is fair, even-handed, and doesn’t feel like the government is putting the hammer down. My fear is that probably sooner than later, there will be an avoidable tragedy, someone will be hurt or killed, and then the calls for action will be as irrational as they are unstoppable. The resulting laws and subsequent enforcement will likely be an overreaction that will remove much of the joy of a day on the water for all, whether they are habitual violators or careful, courteous boaters who wouldn’t dream of tearing up a neighbor’s dock with an errant wake.

I have said before that the bulk of this problem is about visitors and newcomers. One of the rites of passage for my children and for many Bluffton folks was that first time at the helm of the family boat. Whether your boat is an aluminum jonboat with an ancient Evinrude, or one of the big, offshore fishing machines, we as parents enjoy the teachable moments that come from those beginnings of individual responsibility in our children. Accountability is a lesson that most of us learned at a young age. If you don’t do your school work, maybe there is no baseball. If you rattle your neighbor’s dock, you turn around and apologize. Such has been the tradition along the May River, along the Colleton/Okatie, and all the estuarine rivers and creeks that are the jewels of the Lowcountry.

Unfortunately, there are ten times as many of us as there used to be. We don’t all share the same local traditions of courtesy and respect. So enough of the horror stories and anger, enough of the “big government” paranoia: Let’s figure this out together. What do we need to do to solve this problem before the solution gets caught up in a bad event? I need to hear from you. I will also share what I’m hearing from the good people in law enforcement.

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

From the House

Bluffton Today

After being out on the water for most of the day, I’d like to return to the issue we broached a couple weeks ago having to do with bad boating behavior on our waterways. We are still getting lots of calls and emails on this matter. The range of comment is pretty extreme. Most folks are just interested in safe, respectful boat operation. They understand that things can go bad quickly if you combine boats, big horsepower and alcohol. As for me, I have no interest in extending the nanny state to the river, but I would rather preempt egregious violations rather than see people hurt and property abused or destroyed.

From my observations, as well as what I am hearing, it seems as if it is not Bluffton boaters causing the bulk of the problem, but those from surrounding areas who trailer into either All Joy Landing or the Oyster Factory boat ramp. Peer pressure works well with friends and neighbors, but is not too effective with visitors, especially if they have had a few adult beverages.

In the last few weeks, I have had conversations with a couple of DNR folks and members of the Coastal Caucus up in Columbia. Unfortunately, this is vacation time and several of the key people I needed to speak with were unavailable. I do know that our situation here is not isolated. As more visitors decide to make the move to the coast, the problems on the water have increased considerably.

One idea that I have run by several of my legislative colleagues is drawing favorable comment. That idea is to allow video of seriously bad behavior to become part of the law enforcement toolbox. Most of us carry phones with video capability. It seems like a fairly common sense way to give our officers a chance to make good cases without actually seeing the offense. It might also help to compensate for the fact that our policing assets on the waterways are stretched pretty thin.

Before I start thinking in terms of legislation, I need to hear from you on this. Is this a good idea? What kinds of limitations would this necessarily involve? Should video be restricted to misdemeanor offences? Does the fact of everyone’s phone being potentially a law enforcement tool seem a little too “big brother” to you?

I am your representative and my success for the last decade in the statehouse has been due largely to the fact that you let me know what you require of your state government. Every time I seek your thoughts and opinions, without exception, you have come through in grand fashion. This is an important issue and I am confident you won’t be silent.

Incidentally, one of the benefits for this legislator of our recent reapportionment has to do with the fact that our folks want to have a say in their government. While I have been the beneficiary of your good ideas and opinions, the massive increase in our population has meant that District 118 was twice the size it was supposed to be. With the creation of the new District 120, I will be more able to render the personal service that you expect without working my staff overtime every week.

My friend Weston Newton will take over the District 120 seat the first of the year. You know him to be a seasoned and talented public servant. Together, we will make your voice heard loud and clear in Columbia.

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

From the House

Bluffton Today

I believe it’s time for some more gratitude. I realize that for the last few weeks, we have been so caught up in the urgency of the extended session, as well as the foment surrounding the governor’s vetoes, I have failed to properly acknowledge the hard work of some very good people. My disappointments over what we failed to accomplish and my anticipation of what we are going to accomplish next session can wait. I want to issue some well-deserved kudos.

For nearly ten years, this column has been one of my most effective platforms for including you in the extended conversation that is reflected in how your business is done at the statehouse. Staff and I have a process for these pieces that often involves multiple drafts and levels of review before it shows up in the pages of the Wednesday Bluffton Today. Unfortunately, I have omitted the first step in the process each time I have sought to shine a light on how we go from a blank sheet of paper to 600 words of weekly column. Today, we begin at the beginning.

Whether we are in session or out, I try to call the Word Processing Center on late afternoon Thursday or early Friday morning. I dictate the first draft of the column to one of the efficient women who work at Word Processing. They are helpful and attentive as they transcribe my thoughts, often assisting if I am at a loss for the best word or phrase. From this roughest of rough copies, they create a draft and email it to Bluffton where staff and I boil it down, make changes, do a final rewrite or two, and finally ship it off to the editor. Without exception, these folks are pleasant, efficient, motivated to do excellent work, and handle a huge workload without complaint. If every employee of the state were like Word Processing, this representative might be working to expand instead of shrink our government.

I also want to commend the efforts of the Moss Creek Marines for their good work with our returning service members. They are in the process of designing the USMC license plates after we passed the bill granting their cause. The bulk of the dollars raised from this specialty plate will go to the Moss Creek Marines to further their mission of helping to aid our returning warriors. It’s a great cause and they are a superb bunch of men and women who remember when it was they who were returning from one set of challenges to another, often more perplexing experience. If you want to help, please contact our office. We will put you in touch.

I was chatting with a good friend and constituent the other day. He pointed out that about ten or fifteen years ago, the term “public servant” began to morph into “public official.” It was his contention that the changing of the words seems to have given a different meaning to public employment, with the change not being for the better. To his way of thinking, it was more about entitlement, or attitude, or some way of looking at employment that differed from public service. By no means does this change cover all public employees, but it does point out how sometimes words do really matter.

As I think about our conversation, I wish I could have offered more compelling examples of public servants. That’s when I thought about the ladies of the Word Processing Center. They are certainly public servants for whom I am personally grateful.