Wednesday, December 31, 2014

From the House

Bluffton Today

On this last day of 2014, I am pleased to share with you, my last column of the year. This is also the 624th iteration appearing in this space over the past 12 years. During that time, I have tried to provide some insight into the legislative process we undertake each year, beginning officially on the second Tuesday of January.


The most important thing we do is prepare and execute a spending plan. It is important, in my view, for constituents to understand how much we spend and how much we put aside. The budget is a pretty clear statement of what we think is important. The column goes a long way in telling you why it’s important.


Another thing I like to do with the column is to spotlight certain issues either locally, or statewide, that need attention. We have rallied support to protect Pinckney Point, for example, from unwise development. We organized public meetings with the proper regulatory agencies to draw attention to the issues that made its development unwise. Years later, I used the column to encourage popular support that prompted Beaufort County to finally purchase Pinckney Point using their highly regarded Rural and Critical Lands Preservation Program.


I have deep trust, that given the basic facts and a coherent rationale, the electorate and their representatives at all levels will do the wise, just, and productive thing, nearly every time. Whether it is a matter of discouraging the legislature from allowing our state to become the nuclear waste dump for the world, or encouraging our Jasper County constituents to demand positive change to their education system, the column has been a valuable tool.


That said, having a megaphone for my views is far from the most important feature of the column. Of exponentially more value, is the fact that this column is the beginning of a weekly conversation with you, the informed and engaged electorate. Each Wednesday, usually around noon or so, I start to receive comments, suggestions, requests for further information, and sometimes criticism or occasionally, outraged criticism. There are always at least 10 emails or calls, with a maximum of around 300-350 responses, with an average of 30-50 well-reasoned, articulate contributions.


For this representative, to be able to consistently tap the information, experience and wisdom of our extraordinary community is valuable almost beyond measure. To take the most conservative, low-ball estimate of serious weekly comments, say 30, and multiply by 624 columns, we get a big number. That big number is not only a weekly sample of community concerns, it also is powerful evidence for support when we are putting together the budget.


To take a very simple example: When the entry to Sun City from Highway 278 became a dangerous intersection, then-Beaufort County Councilwoman Margaret Griffin brought me in immediately. When the next budget supplement was being researched and debated in committee, I could put 500 coherent, articulate, constituent emails on the desk of each member in the room. It was a strong piece of evidence that the state and the county needed to address the matter. It took far longer for Margaret and me to coordinate the response between the jurisdictions than to make the decision.


The upcoming session will likely be focused largely on ethics and transportation infrastructure. As I start to report the different measures working through committee, I will get a volume and quality of commentary that will effectively drive a big portion of the deliberation.


The weekly conversation that started over twelve years ago has allowed us, for many years, to punch above our weight. Now that we, as a region and a delegation, are legitimate heavyweights, I’m confident you will see a stronger return on our tax investments, and more of our conservative, Lowcountry values reflected statewide. Let’s keep talking.

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

From the House

Bluffton Today

As this is Christmas Eve, I’m going to limit the politics and weigh in a little more on the gratitude side of the ledger. I did get quite a number of good emails on the last couple of columns regarding committee and subcommittee assignments, and what they might mean for the upcoming session.


I try to give enough of the structure of the legislature and the flow of work so that if you want to follow a particular item that might be of special interest to you or your business, you will know who needs a call or a letter. There is always a concern that I will lose my audience with too much “inside baseball,” but history and context are so vital to understanding how the people’s business is conducted. It is a delicate balance. It is very gratifying when I get positive feedback from you, especially if I’m worried that I may have gone overboard with details.


There is a follow up to an item from last week’s column. I mentioned that my pal, Weston Newton had been asked by Speaker Lucas to sit on the newly created Legislative Oversight Committee. In their organizational meeting last week, Rep. Newton was elected chairman of this important body. Legislative Oversight Committee is tasked with programmatic review of all state agencies, with full investigative and subpoena powers. There are over 200 agencies and the job is expected to take seven years.


On the local front, the Town of Bluffton did an outstanding job of removing and replacing the dying tree in the center of the Tom Herbkersman pocket park in the southeast corner of the Promenade. Bluffton Manager, Marc Orlando has certainly hit the ground running, if this is an example of his administration. They diagnosed the situation early so that falling branches hurt no one. Bids were let and processed for the work without delay. The proper notices were issued, and the whole thing came off without a hitch. Thank you, friends. Excellent job.


A few weeks ago in this space, I suggested that local businesses hire students on break from school to work over the holiday. In fact, I hired my son, Cole and his friend Caleb. They have done good work and collected a couple of paychecks, as well as gotten some valuable experience. I think it is pretty good idea and am happy with the outcome.


However, since the column came out, I have gotten quite a few phone calls and visits, not too many emails, from folks who told me about their holiday and temporary jobs when they were growing up. The stories were mostly from older fellows, a couple from Depression times. Some were inspirational, some were pretty sad, about folks making the best of what they had. The thing is, work is such a powerful thing, whether we realize it at the time or not. Even a small job, or a temporary job, is often so much more than just a paycheck.


Finally, I want to say a few things about supporting and appreciating our community. When you do business with your neighbors instead of multinational big box stores, those dollars stay in your community. There are so many towns that no longer have a downtown, or even much of an identity, because shoppers would rather save a nickel than support their community. Local banks didn’t gamble with your savings and crash the economy. Please think and shop local. We have one of the best places imaginable to call home—in large part because we support one another with our business.


Have a merry Christmas. Be safe, and remember that designated driver. (I’m a dad, can’t help it.)

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

From the House

Bluffton Today

Last week, I gave you a preliminary report on the pre-session and a few of the committee assignments of members of our delegation. It is truly a big deal that both Rep. Shannon Erickson and I are members of Ways and Means Committee. Our primary job is writing the budget, the spending and investment plan for our state’s foreseeable future.


I doubt seriously if Beaufort County will ever again be anything but a donor county, as far as receiving in services and infrastructure value close to what we contribute in taxes. We are, in truth, a relatively wealthy area, and there is merit in lending a hand to those communities less blessed than ours. However, there was a time when we were taxed in an outrageously disproportionate fashion, with almost no recourse. The reason was because our population was small and our delegation, even with some seniority, couldn’t compete with the population centers. Much of that has changed and we are well positioned to contribute our fair share, but also to receive a more realistic return on our investments with the state.


My subcommittee assignment on Ways and Means is Parks, Recreation and Tourism. This is the culmination of several years of effort on my part, and of legislative allies who are familiar with my skills and inclinations.


Our part of the Lowcountry is home to one of the finest resorts in the world at Palmetto Bluff. They are consistently rated in the top five in the country and top ten on the planet. Bluffton and Beaufort are both travel magazine favorites, recognized as funky, off-the-beaten-path little towns to either visit or places to retire. Our natural assets, arts and cultural attractions, and great weather could all use more of a megaphone. “Parks, Recreation, and Tourism” is a large part of what we are about. It gives us a great quality of life, as well as supports a ton of jobs in various forms of the hospitality industry.


The most successful of our state parks, year in and year out, Hunting Island State Park, also supports many of our less visited parks. Hunting Island needs a little help with its beaches from time to time. We now have a seat at that table. I guess you could say I’m pleased with my assignment.


If you read Rep. Weston Newton’s Sunday column in this space, you know that he is also moving up the ranks. He was returned to Judiciary Committee, but also was assigned to the prestigious Constitutional Laws Subcommittee, along with Judiciary chairman Rep. Greg Dellaney, and House Majority Leader Rep. Bruce Bannister.


Weston was also asked by Speaker Jay Lucas to serve on the newly created Legislative Oversight Committee. This important body will do a programmatic analysis of each agency of the state over the next seven years. Not only are we proud that Weston is one of ours, but those of who know this hard-working sophomore lawmaker are confident that his efforts will not only make our state government more efficient, but also more transparent and more accountable to the taxpayers.


It is a week before Christmas. In the spirit of giving and in profound gratitude for all we have been given, let me suggest this: Join Mary and I in support of two of our fine local charities. Send a check to either or both: Bluffton Self Help, Donations Dept. Box 2420, Bluffton, SC 29910; and/or Bluffton--Jasper County Volunteers in Medicine, Box 2653, Bluffton, SC 29910.


Think of it as a birthday present in the name of the fellow who told us to “love thy neighbor.”

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

From the House

Bluffton Today

Organizational session for the General Assembly started this week and once again, our lovely portion of the Lowcountry has advanced toward the front of the legislative pack. One of my reasons in running for state office many years ago was to try and bring Beaufort County out of the political wilderness. We paid taxes in such disproportion to our meager influence; we were something of a piggy bank for the upper parts of the state.


Those days, thankfully, are long in the past. With the appointment of our delegation colleague, Rep. Shannon Erickson, to Ways and Means Committee, we now have two members, including this legislator, seated among the folks who prioritize our state’s spending and investment.


Originally, Ways and Means was organized to potentially have one member from each of the 46 counties. Over the years, as tax receipts gradually increased from the coastal counties and receded from many of the inland areas, more coastal members populated this all-important committee. With Shannon’s appointment, I believe each coastal county, including Beaufort County, now has two seats on Ways and Means. We will not fail to properly appreciate this enhanced responsibility.


Also, our colleague Rep. Weston Newton has been returned to Judiciary Committee, after distinguishing himself by his contribution to their work product in his first full, two-year session. His administrative experience as the ten-plus year chairman of Beaufort County Council was expected to give him valuable insight into how state legislation plays out at the local level, and he did not disappoint.


In fact, without stealing Weston’s thunder, there is a new, important committee being formed, on which Rep. Newton will sit. The purpose and powers of the new committee, I will leave for Weston to articulate. Suffice to say the leadership, myself included, has great expectations for the sophomore lawmaker from District 120.


Another member making a good impression is Rep. Jeff Bradley, recently elected to represent Hilton Head Island and District 123. Jeff and his vivacious wife Anne were among the more popular folks during the social portions of the orientation process. With Jeff’s solid civic portfolio, and his skills in finance, I would be surprised if he is not appointed to Education Committee. He has good ideas on how we can reform our public education system so that South Carolina young people leave high school not only with a diploma, or its equivalent, but also have a clear pathway to training and education and a place in the 21st century workforce.


On another pleasant note, my good friend Joanie Heyward was at the statehouse for a visit this week. If towns had ambassadors, Joanie would certainly hold that office in Bluffton. She not only can tell our story better than anyone, she also, through her many civic contributions, makes the story a lot more interesting and attractive.


Finally, it is my privilege to be able to adjourn the first day of session in honor of Ms. Jenny Bedenbaugh, the recently deceased mother of our friend, Lisa Sulka. Our heartfelt condolences go out to Mayor Sulka and her family. South Carolina is not made up of only smiling faces and beautiful places, but also some really good, decent people. Lisa’s mom was one of the best.


Once again, the holidays are here, with kids out of school and on the streets and pathways. Please watch out for them. For those older kids who will be attending parties and socializing with friends, please have the talk about the designated driver and playing it safe with alcohol. It is just what good parents do.

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

From the House

Bluffton Today

The Thanksgiving holiday at the Herbkersman household was, as much as possible, about family and a celebration of gratitude. We have adult children who have new lives starting alarmingly soon, and older parents who are dealing with the challenges that we all eventually will face. Holidays for us are times to focus on the present and enjoy our blessings to the absolute fullest. Memories of absent loved ones make the enjoyment of family and friends all the sweeter.


Strolling around Old Town Bluffton last weekend began with a commitment to walk off some of my excess celebration, but as often happens, it turned into a bit of market research. Old business habits run deep with me. As I made the rounds from the Promenade, meandering down to the Church of the Cross, by way of the Oyster Factory, I was a little taken aback by all the folks, and especially by all the business being done. I stopped to chat with a few shoppers who didn’t look familiar, thinking they might be from out of town. Some were, but several were in the process of becoming our neighbors.


Out-of-towners and newcomers alike were just enchanted with our place. They liked the way we have kept the nature intact, how we have preserved our history, and most of all, how people in the shops, galleries and restaurants all seem eager to chat. I am becoming more convinced that our friendliness and conversational bent just puts us over the top as far as visitors are concerned. Home folks kind of take it for granted. It really is a special feature.


And speaking of restaurants, many of you have commented on the changes in the Promenade, one of which is that Moon Mi is now the Mulberry Street Pizzeria. We had a number of good conversations with the Mulberry Street partners before we decided to make the change. We had built a strong business at Moon Mi, with a loyal customer base, thanks to the good work of former manager Charlie Wetmore. However, Joe Sullivan, Mulberry chef and partner, made a very good case that his product and style would enhance the overall dining offering in the Promenade, especially with the opening of the new Bluffton Room, and some of the other potential additions we are considering. We also liked the fact that it was one family group selling to another family group. Just seemed like a Bluffton thing to do.


One of the benefits of having two competing chambers of commerce in Bluffton, seems to be that they both are trying to raise their game. One example is that the HHI/Bluffton Chamber of Commerce has hired a small business specialist, Hannah Horne, who is coordinating the chamber’s Shop Small campaign in our area. They have partnered with American Express and chosen four small businesses in Bluffton to spotlight with website videos and print coverage. Those businesses are: Babbie Guscio’s The Store, Jacob Preston Pottery, Chica’s in the Promenade, and Spartina 449.


Finally, I want to make a suggestion to all the business folks. Most of us can use a little extra help during the holidays, so it just makes sense to hire a college student home for the break, and hire one high school student, even if it’s just someone to sweep up and take out the trash. Not only will it make your life a little easier, with maybe a little more family time, it may well make the economics of those you temporarily hire a whole lot better. We have always tried to hire young folks over the holidays and have found that they are good workers and they also remember the opportunity you offered. I promise you they get more out of it than a few paychecks. It’s a small investment that can pay big dividends.

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

From the House

Bluffton Today

We had a ton of calls from folks wanting to talk about last week’s column on the Jasper County School Board redistricting, and public input meetings. The overwhelming majority of communication was positive. It is absolutely in concert with my impression that the local stakeholders are ready for a profound change in how their schools are administered. That change begins with an honest, publicly endorsed reapportionment.


After seeing my column in print, I was a little taken aback. Usually, I am a bit more circumspect in how I write about things where folks can potentially get their feelings hurt. Honestly, I was more than a little irritated by the shamelessness of the effort to game the system by having outsiders giving testimony obviously influenced by a single source.


If I was unduly harsh or hurtfully candid, it is because I think that this matter should be approached with the understanding that quality education for the upcoming generation of Jasper children trumps the petty political concerns that seem to have done a lot, if not to create, then certainly to perpetuate the current systemic failure. This is about the real life prospects of many young people, as well as the future economic viability of their home communities. It shouldn’t be the grist for the petty politics mill.


As your representative, I take this very seriously. I know many of you personally. We, in the delegation, have heard your stories and seen first-hand the manner in which the majority on the school board has behaved regarding your concerns. One way or another, this situation will improve. If not, it is not unprecedented for the state to assume control of a school district to institute basic systems and controls. We all hope it does not come to that.


On a more positive note, I want to return to local topics in Bluffton, specifically the topic nearest and dearest to all Blufftonians. That is, of course, the May River, and how we can work together to return it to a pristine condition. You may remember that for the last couple of budget cycles, water concerns in southern Beaufort County saw a fair number of our tax dollars repatriated to the area. I want to give a little background on that.


Our friends at the SC Department of Heath and Environmental Control (DHEC) have a big job and not as much funding as they would like. Consequently, they prioritize their support very carefully. To that end, this legislator brought Marc Orlando and Shawn Leiniger, from the Town of Bluffton, up to Columbia to meet with the proper folks from DHEC. They gave an explanation and rationale for water quality funding that was both impressive and persuasive. They gave details on what the river means to our economy, with appropriate facts and figures, as well as what the river means to all of us, in terms of our coherence, unity, and prosperity as a community.


Not only was the initial presentation well received, Marc, now Bluffton town manager, periodically invites DHEC officials down to Bluffton to see how those dollars are spent, and explains how we get strong bang for every dollar invested with Bluffton for river improvement.


From my seat on Ways and Means, it is gratifying to see the DHEC folks use their relationship with Bluffton, and how good their return on investment has been, in committee testimony to justify and explain the need for future appropriations. Also, I am confident that Marc and Shawn are willing and certainly able to articulate the state’s position back to the town, so the town can continue their productive relationship with the state. Having competent people, with good communication skills, makes government at all levels work the way it is supposed to work.

Thursday, November 20, 2014

From the House

Bluffton Today

The timing of the Supreme Court’s long-awaited “Corridor of Shame” ruling could not have been more interesting, when we consider all the hoopla around the Jasper County School Board, and their upcoming redistricting. Our three community input meetings are complete, with credit going to all those who attended and made their voices heard.


The bulk of what we heard was from folks who truly seemed to understand that the status quo was unacceptable, that a failing system needed fundamental change. We were heartened to hear from so many parents and community leaders ready to demand that their kids not be disadvantaged by a substandard public education.


By contrast, it was disappointing to hear from a small group of speakers whose priorities seemed to be more political than educational. They seemed to speak from some other place than Jasper County Council chairwoman, Barbara Clark, who said that our efforts should be “about the kids.” In fact, I spoke with several attendees after the last meeting who were A.M.E. church members. They apologetically told me that much of what some of these folks had to say had been parroted from words they heard from the pulpit in the last several weeks.


Our goal was to take input from the community, which we did. We tried to explain the redistricting process, and what the options were. We introduced an alternate model to the plan formulated by Senator Pinckney—comparing and contrasting among the several possibilities. We were successful on all counts and truly hope that the folks understand they do have choices other than the perennially failing status quo.


It is likely that the House and Senate will come up with different plans for the reapportionment of the Jasper County School Board districts. If that happens and we are unable to resolve the differences, the decision will default to Judge Gergel. In my view, Judge Gergel will now have much more information on which to base his decision than simply the plan reflecting the needs of Senator Pinckney, formulated in private without benefit of any public input.


Another feature of the recent Supreme Court decision will be that we in the legislature will come up with a plan to satisfy the finding that the state had not provided all children in South Carolina with a “minimally adequate” public education. The plan will probably involve a funding increase that will also entail enhanced oversight of how that money is spent. With the high probability that real ethics legislation will be passed early in the next session, including the recommendations of Representative Weston Newton’s FOIA subcommittee, the lack of transparency by the school board majority will be harder to maintain. Also, the Justice Department is sometimes a little loose on political mischief—not so on financial mischief.


My hope is that the Jasper legislative delegation, Jasper County Council, the school board and district will find a way to begin to work together. It would be good if such a thing occurred because it is the right thing to do. Failing that, perhaps we can make some progress because persistent failure will begin to have real consequences, as the state oversight becomes more rigorous. The rewards of the current cronyism are not too difficult to conceal in the generalized mess of ineptitude. The task becomes wearisome in the light of even modest transparency.


One way or the other, I say to you that Jasper children are going to get a better education. We cannot write off another generation just so that a group of insiders and self-identified elites can run the show. We all SAY we want Jasper County to take its place in the ranks of the prosperous South Carolina, to produce and fill jobs that support strong and stable families and communities. Friends, it’s time we all started to ACT like it.

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

From the House

Bluffton Today

Tonight, November 12th, at 6 p.m., is the third and final meeting for public comment on the plans to redistrict the Jasper County School Board. If you are a school parent, or any other Jasper resident with a desire to see your area take its rightful place in a prosperous South Carolina, I urge you to attend. I also hope you will share your thoughts on how best you think your school board may be chosen. If it is your choice to have your school board reapportioned by one person, Senator Pinckney--with no community input, then so be it.


It was three years ago that the legislative districts in our area were reapportioned, resulting in this legislator, Representative Weston Newton, and Senator Tom Davis joining the Jasper legislative delegation. We have, along with my friend and colleague, Representative Bill Bowers, tried to extend the benefits of a more powerful and coherent voice in the statehouse on behalf of Jasper County. We have also tried to provide an example of transparent and open delegation meetings, at which residents could voice opinions they were not allowed to voice in some other venues, specifically the school board meetings.


While Jasper County Council has been a consistently positive force in improving the fortunes of their constituents, the same cannot be said for the majority of current school board members. To the dismay of several board members, school board meetings are anything but transparent or open. We have seen a certain bunker mentality pervade their dealings, to the point of having folks bodily removed from the meetings for the crime of clapping for speakers not espousing the party line. In fact, Representative Newton and I were removed for supporting a young woman apparently clapping out of turn. If the matters under discussion were not of such importance, it would’ve made for great farcical comedy.


Perhaps my two years as chairman of the Jasper legislative delegation is not enough time to properly understand how things are done on school board and its creature, the school district. I know taxes are collected, and dollars are spent, but the results just seem to get worse and worse. I know that Beaufort County has some of the best schools in the state and Jasper County’s seems to always be among the worst. Does it make such a profound difference on which side of Highway 170 one lives? Is it a partisan problem? My colleague, Representative Bowers, is a college professor and a Democrat. He knows firsthand the importance of a good education. He also has deep concerns over how this redistricting is handled.


If I were to surmise from the strong interest in the redistricting, especially from those outside of Jasper County, it almost seems like this is some sort of rural political machine. If the school district hires a lot of folks that don’t seem to get the job done year after year, maybe the rationale of those hires were not about what is best for the kids, and more about the power to hire and whom to hire.


After the recent episode involving the Reverend Darby, I spoke with the IRS and the Justice Department. Apparently, my reports were not the first they had received regarding what we have observed.


The importance of education to the future of the residents of Jasper County is well established. It is one of the best ways to lift the economy and the quality of life of the perennially underperforming county. To relegate the future of the county to the same old failure producing cronyism is inexcusable.


I believe my friend and Jasper County Council chairwoman, Barbara Clark, said it best: “It’s not about what race, color, creed, or the family a kid comes from, it’s simply about the kid.” Enough said. See you tonight.

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

From the House

Bluffton Today

We had a gratifyingly good turnout last Wednesday at the Jasper County School Board redistricting meeting in Ridgeland. There is another meeting at 6 p.m. in Hardeeville tonight, with another the following Wednesday, November 12th, at the Jasper County Government Building. I want to personally encourage all members of the community to attend, and make your views on this important issue heard.


There was a pretty good consensus of opinion at last week’s meeting for the seven-district plan. Even the attorney for the school board had good things to say about that option. We do want to hear from more folks, if not for this option, then for another.


However, I am disappointed that there was an untoward attempt to dilute the local stakeholder opinion by a circulated suggestion that folks outside Jasper should attend the meetings and speak, for the presumed purpose of either influencing the mediator, or to sway the opinions of the legitimate stakeholders in attendance. Published reports have it that the Reverend Joseph Darby, the highly respected and influential pastor and senior elder of the Beaufort district of the A.M.E. church, urged his ministerial colleagues around the Lowcountry to suggest to their parishioners they might want to attend the Jasper meetings. While the Reverend Darby played it off as a joke, it was certainly cringworthy humor, at best.


The redistricting of a severely malapportioned school board map is serious business. This is especially so given the inexcusable and persistent failure of the Jasper School District leadership, who serve at the pleasure of the school board. In my view, also shared by the bulk of the Jasper legislative delegation, the shortcomings of the school system are not separate and apart from the structural deficiency on the school board.
The fact that there is a 62% deviation between the size of the largest and smallest districts, that has been unrepaired for almost a decade, is telling. The bunker mentality of the current board, with their flagrant disregard for even the basics of transparency and fairness, is also a telling feature.


As to Reverend Darby’s alleged joke, I am at a loss as to how such an esteemed community leader could align himself with the interests of a status quo that seems designed to diminish those who have the very least to lose. Education is the great equalizer in this country. With a good education, doors open. Without an education, all doors are closed.
There is a political dimension to public education, whether we like it or not. The Jasper delegation is attempting to allow the voices of the school parents and the other stakeholders of good will to be heard, to be able to have a say in the prospects of success for their children and their community. We don’t need more political mischief.


Next Sunday, the 9th of November, is a day many of us have been looking forward to for a long time. The 7th annual Taste of Waddell is happening on the gorgeous high bluff overlooking the Colleton/Okatie on the grounds of the Waddell Mariculture Center at the end of Sawmill Creek Road in Greater Bluffton.


From 3 to 7 p.m., we will enjoy shrimp three ways by incredible chef Michael Sigler. Bluffton Town Councilman Larry Toomer and his lovely wife Tina , from the Bluffton Oyster Company, will have steaming buckets of Bluffton oysters. You will also get a chance to hear from my pal Al Stokes about the ongoing renovations to the installation, as well as their new, cool water science.


The charge is $30, which does not include oysters or wine and beer. The sunset, which is free, is more than worth the tariff.


Mary and I, along with Weston and Rose, look forward to seeing you.
Call 785-4106 or email www.friendsofwaddell.org for reservations.

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

From the House

Bluffton Today

There were a ton of good folks at the Promenade last Saturday morning for the Alzheimers Walk. Each year, it gets larger and involves more and more people. I believe that explosive growth is because an ever expanding number of families are affected by the various dementias afflicting our older population. Our family has not been spared by this expanding tragedy, and I know many of you are struggling with this as well.


When you look at the numbers, and their nearly exponential increase, it is a frightening trend line. Not only can we ill afford to lose the wisdom and experience embedded in those lost memories, the projected medical costs are breathtaking. We are fortunate to have the Alzheimer’s Association, and their hundreds of thousands of volunteers to raise awareness and funds to support the science that will defeat this scourge.


By now, most of you have read the disposition of the Bobby Harrell matter. When this first arose, I assumed it was just more political mischief. Especially since our delegation was working so hard to get some meaningful ethics legislation on the books, and meeting with quiet opposition that seemed to suggest the status quo was OK. Well, apparently, the status quo was not OK. As I learned more about the case, my feeling went from embarrassment to bitter disappointment. In truth, the former speaker had been good to Beaufort County, but there was apparently a level of persistent wrongdoing that just can’t be condoned.


If there is anything that might be regarded as a silver lining in this distressing affair, it is the fact that the prospects for real ethics legislation are now very strong. Because of his good work on the ethics legislation last session from his seat on Judiciary Committee, the new speaker, Jay Lucas has appointed my friend, Representative Weston Newton to the Ethics Study Committee as chairman of the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) subcommittee. Weston will be the delegation’s point person on the ethics bill legislative process. I’m certain he will be just as gracious in success as he was pointedly candid in defeat last session.


I want to remind my friends in Jasper County that the first of the meetings to take public comment on the Jasper School Board redistricting will be Wednesday, the 29th of October at Ridgeland High School at 6 p.m. This will be followed the next Wednesday at the same time at Hardeeville High, and the next Wednesday at the Jasper County Government building.


We will have reapportionment guru Bobby Bowers, from the S.C. Budget and Control Board, as our expert advisor on how these things are done and what criteria must apply. We want to hear from residents and especially school parents on how they want this important task to be handled, and what is most important to them. Judge Gergel has given the legislature until the first of March of next year to pass a plan or the courts will impose a plan. Politics being what it is, we may not make the deadline for passage, but we would like to have ample public comment to submit to the court to aid in the ruling. This is your time to speak. I promise the rooms will be large enough and there will be a chair for everyone. See you there.


Finally, the upcoming election will decide a number of important issues, but none is more important than the referendum to allow Beaufort County to borrow $20 million to continue the good work of the Beaufort County Rural and Critical Lands Preservation Program. This growth control and land preservation tool is nationally recognized as one of the best of its kind. Please do your part to protect our environment and enhance our economy.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

From the House

Bluffton Today

The Historic Bluffton Arts and Seafood Festival was another home run. Congrats to Bluffton Rotary, Mary O’Neill, the festival committee, and all the hard working volunteers. My Mary and I had a truly great time. The very best part was having Mary’s dad, John Kinzer, with us. John has had some medical issues of late, and he certainly did enjoy seeing so many of his old friends. Sometimes an event like Arts and Seafood, a classic family friendly extravaganza, is just the thing to remind us what a great community we have.


As I walk around, it is hard to miss all the new, thriving businesses. For a newcomer, it might just seem like it happened by accident, or was always this way. In fact, this community put its heads and hearts together and made it happen. Seemingly endless meetings and workshops to plan, then plan some more, went into this success. One of those early planners is now our new town manager, my friend Marc Orlando. We expect more great things from Marc.


Our friends over in Jasper County, in Hardeeville and Ridgeland, are starting to get very serious about bringing the benefits of good jobs and increased opportunity to their residents. They are starting in exactly the right place with the reform of the public schools. That process begins with the creation of new, properly apportioned school districts. To that end, our first meeting to gather public input is scheduled for Wednesday, October 29th, in Ridgeland at the high school, beginning at 6 p.m. The following Wednesday, November 5th, will be the second meeting, at Hardeeville High School, again at 6 p.m. There will be another meeting the next Wednesday, November 12th, at the Jasper County Government Building, at 6 p.m.


We will talk about the different scenarios and different types of school board alignments and options. South Carolina apportionment guru, Bobby Bowers, from the Budget and Control Board, will be on hand to give technical advise and share his expert opinions on how other jurisdictions have had success with redistricting. I want to reiterate that we are not pushing any particular configuration or plan. We will share some models that have been created, and hope that Senator Pinckney will share his plan and map.


Our intention is, and has always been, to inform and empower the stakeholders in this immensely important process, and to place before them the opportunity to make their own way. This is in stark contrast to the process of allowing one person, in a room in Columbia, to create a plan that will likely be in place for a decade. This is a chance for the folks to have their say.


One thing that seems to make this basic form of democracy work most efficiently is this: if you take issue with a plan or a part of a plan, be prepared to offer an alternative that will make it better. It is your right to say “No” but much more helpful to explain what needs to change for you to say “Yes.”


On a housekeeping note, we will be a little short-staffed beginning November 1st. Meredith Irion will be handling most of the delegation duties for Beaufort County, and many of you know we have the ever diligent Helen Pittman in Jasper County.


Finally, the 7th Annual Taste of Waddell is Sunday, November 9th, from 3-7 p.m. on the high bluff overlooking the Colleton/Okatie River. My pal Dave Harter tells me that they are approaching a sell-out. So call Dave at 785-4106 or email daveh@hargray.com for reservations. This is a fun event to support the excellent work of Al Stokes and his crew at the Waddell Mariculture Center, located at the end of Sawmill Creek Road in Greater Bluffton.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

From the House

Bluffton Today

With the last couple of columns focusing on the Jasper County education situation, the phones and the email really lit up this week. Calls were especially heavy after our presentation to the Sun City Republican Club regarding the transparency and redistricting matters. Sun City folks, by and large, are well- educated people, and they understand that their current circumstances are closely related to their investments in a good education. The overwhelming consensus comment was that no child in America should have a substandard public education due to cronyism or politics.


We are working diligently to get three or four dates in Jasper County to roll out what we think might be some good, serviceable alternatives to the flawed plan for the redistricting of the Jasper School Board now on the table. Most of the meetings will involve Bobby Bowers, the state reapportionment guru, acting as a technical consultant. Some of our model plans will have fewer seats, some more. Some boundary lines will be moved to reflect population shifts.


A few things which any plan must consider will be not diluting any minority voting districts, per the Voting Rights Act. We will also keep intact any neighborhoods of common interest. Most importantly, the principle of “one person, one vote” will be closely observed. This means that one district should not have appreciably more voters than another. This is measured as deviation from the perfect distribution of voters. The current deviation is something like 62%, which is unacceptable.


There is no perfect plan, but what we hope to achieve is a Jasper County stakeholder’s plan. Within the previously stated criteria, I believe that given the opportunity to have their say, the local folks can come up with a better plan than can be formulated by one person in a room in Columbia. This is a time when having the people who will have to live with the outcome of any map or plan, be the people who express their preferences, with ample opportunity for comment and discussion. We will create a record of your likes and dislikes, how you think things should be organized, and with technical help from Mr. Bowers, arrive at a plan.


As you may remember, Judge Gergel has given the legislature until the first of March to pass an acceptable plan. Failing that, the court will decide. Politics being what it is, even if we don’t manage to pass a good plan by the deadline, we want to have a record of the desires of the stakeholders, which will be placed before the court. This process should be “of the people, by the people, and for the people.” It doesn’t get much simpler than that.


As you read this, the weeklong Historic Bluffton Arts and Seafood Festival is under way. It is jam packed with entertainment and family oriented activities, culminating in the Street Fest on Saturday and Sunday. This is an art fair with continuous live music at several stages around the Old Town.


Tonight, at the Rotary Community Center at Oscar Frazier Park, there is a performance by incredible Gullah storyteller and singer Louise Cohen. Also on the bill is noted author Patti Callahan Henry, who will speak on her latest New York Times best-selling novels set in Bluffton and Savannah. The performance and book signing will kick off at 6 p.m., cost $10 per person and is by reservation only. Call Mary at 843-815-2472 or 843-815-2474 for reservations. All proceeds go to the Waddell Mariculture Center.


And speaking of Waddell, don’t miss out on the 7th Annual Taste of Waddell coming up on November 9th at the Waddell Center. Call Capt. Dave Harter at 843-785-4106 or email daveh@hargray.com.

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

From the House

Bluffton Today

For the last few months, we have been inundated with media coverage of alleged domestic violence committed by professional athletes, among others. As a sports fan, it’s so disappointed to see these gifted young millionaires acting in such a manner. This is especially so, because there are so many young men who idolize and emulate these athletes, and many feel they can do no wrong.


It is also a matter of deep concern for me that our state, so great in many ways, is in the grip of a domestic violence epidemic.


Just today, I got a most appreciated email from a Sun City friend, Nancy Berry, who forwarded a timely reminder that once again, Citizens Opposed to Domestic Abuse (CODA) will be holding their Race4Love on Valentine’s Day, Feb. 14th. This is an important fund/awareness raiser for these good folks. Put it on your calendar. Also, go to their web site, www.codalowcountry.org, and take a look at what they do to help those in this awful situation, as well as their programs to prevent domestic violence. If you are like me, you will probably want to send them a donation whether you are a runner or not.


Another good friend, Jim Lee, is passing the leadership torch of the Sun City Republican Club, after two extremely productive years. I recently met with this group and was amazed at the turnout. There were folks there from all walks of life who were interested in hearing details of our Jasper County activities. There is a general optimism that when the voices of the stakeholders are truly heard, our Jasper neighbors will see big changes and big improvement.


One of the reasons that Jim’s meetings are always so successful is that he and his lovely wife always make everyone feel welcome, not to mention that there is also a seat for everyone, as well.


One of my legislative colleagues and friends is Representative Bill Taylor from Aiken. From time to time, we will work in concert on columns, as well as legislation. One of those pieces of legislation last session was the Ethics Reform Bill. This past June, this landmark bill, years in the making, was on its way to the governor’s desk to be signed into law. However, on the very last day of session, it died in the Senate for lack of a necessary final vote. It was a crushing disappointment.


Under intense pressure from your legislator and other members of leadership, the House continues to lead on ethics reform. The House Speaker Pro Tempore, Jay Lucas, in his role as acting Speaker of the House, appointed a 22 member Bi-Partisan House Ethics Reform Committee to review and strengthen the ethics legislation to be submitted next session, which starts the second Tuesday of January.


Representative Derham Cole, a Republican from Spartanburg, will chair the committee. The committee will be organized around three sub-committees: Campaign Finance; Enforcement and Investigation; and Freedom of Information Act (FOIA).


I had a conversation with Acting Speaker Lucas, in which I strongly urged him to appoint my Beaufort County colleague, Weston Newton, to the committee. I was prepared to go to the mat on this one, but Jay agreed immediately. In fact, Weston had distinguished himself in the Judiciary Committee debates on this matter last session to the extent that he was also appointed as chairman of the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) Sub-committee.


How important is this? In the words of my friend, Jay Lucas: “This comprehensive reform effort is bigger than any single issue or any single lawmaker. At the end of the day, true ethics reform should ensure that all elected officials are held accountable and instill an unshakable public trust in our system of government.”

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.

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

From the House

Bluffton Today
I hope everybody had a great Labor Day Weekend. From a business perspective, this holiday was simply over the moon. Every restaurant in the Old Town was packed, with either a line or a waiting list. The galleries report strong sales and very high levels of out-of­towners, presumably here to see for themselves what all the fuss is about with our little corner of the South Carolina Lowcountry.


Much of the email and phone comment this week was on the governor’s vetoes. There was a fair amount of confusion as to what we were doing in Columbia in late August. The stories in the papers, for the most part, did not make clear why we were there and what the issues were, especially concerning the Horry County matter. OK, here’s the deal:


It seems that some of the fire coverage in Horry County is done with semi-antique equipment, which is often housed in older fire stations. Insurance companies were prepared to dramatically raise fire insurance rates in the communities served by the fire departments in question. The question before the House was whether to allow the tax increase, and thereby forestall the insurance rate increases, or deny the increase and let the insurance companies become the bad guys by raising rates. The House chose to deny the tax increase.


So many times, our various media choose to give us a bare-bones rendition of the information, rather than do the background research to provide a fuller, more accurate story. Fortunately, in our part of the state, with the delegation you have chosen, your representatives give you the straight story, regardless of what you might otherwise read. I have produced well over 600 columns and op-ed pieces since my election. My colleagues Rep. Weston Newton and Sen. Tom Davis are both busy turning out columns and informational pieces for publication every week. Beaufort County residents have ample opportunity to hear the “inside baseball” treatment of the issues of the day. This is a version of transparency that we may take for granted. I assure you that other parts of the state would love to have such a wealth of good, first-person information from their representatives.


Speaking of transparency and the possible lack thereof, my good friends Marty Sauls and Barbara Clark, both Jasper County Councilpersons, called to report an agenda item where the much maligned Jasper School Board went into executive session to discuss the building of new Taj Mahal offices for that same much maligned school board. Just to be clear, this is Jasper County, where they have special fundraising events to purchase books and pencils for the school children. While I am constrained by my vow of civility, let’s just say that such a notion runs this representative very hot. In my view, the school board is about providing for the proper education of pupils and students, not building plush offices and meeting facilities for themselves.


I want to remind you about the upcoming Alzheimer’s fundraiser in the Promenade. Tomorrow, September 4th, from 5 to 8 p.m. we will be “Paint[ing] the Promenade Purple.” This is an old fashioned pub crawl from Captain Wood’s to Cork’s, to Corner Perk, to the Infield, to Latitude Wine Bar, and Moon Mi Pizza. The charge is $20 in advance and $25 at the door. This is going to be a great time, with all the proceeds going to the Alzheimer’s Association.


Next month, we are also hosting the Alzheimer’s Walk on Saturday, October 25th. Again this begins and ends at the Calhoun Street Promenade. Alzheimer’s is serious, and so are we. See you there.

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

From the House

Bluffton Today

The response to my recent three-part series of columns on education issues in Jasper County was overwhelming. This last week, we had well over a hundred folks either stop by the office, call in, or email regarding the series, as well as what appears to be happening on the ground. The mix of people was very interesting in that there were a great many school parents and concerned residents. In addition, there were a good number of people who contributed stories of what worked and what didn’t work in the places where they lived before relocating to our lovely part of the Lowcountry. For me, a good idea is a good idea, even if it originated in Ohio.


I am convinced that there is now a critical mass of the electorate who are informed and engaged on this issue. Regardless of the outcome of the redistricting, there is every reason to believe that the real issues are not going to be sidetracked and replaced with the old Jasper politics. Anyone paying even a small bit of attention now understands that there is a strong linkage between the quality of public education and the economic success of the region. As my good friend, Jasper County Councilwoman Barbara Clark told me: “It’s not about what race, color, creed or the family a kid comes from, it’s simply about the kid.” For me, that about sums it up. We can play these political games, or we can get serious, and do the hard work of bringing this system into the 21st century.


The delegation does not have jurisdiction directly over the school board or the school district. We can, however, help to make certain that the electoral part of the problem is addressed. We can also, in the next session, reform the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) so that reasonable questions about such things as methodology, measurement of outcomes, or even where and how the dollars slated for the schools are spent, have to be answered in a timely fashion. We will also support the growing number of stakeholders, parents, and citizens who have stepped forward and demanded that quality education for our children takes priority over politics as usual. Honestly, the stakes could not be higher.


Back in downtown Bluffton, the Boiled Peanut Festival in the Promenade came off without a hitch. That is, with the possible exception of again underestimating the number of rabid boiled peanut fans who were going to turn up. Even on the hottest day of the year, they sold out of peanuts an hour before the event was over. Nonetheless, Shelly and her crew did an excellent job, with those unable to get their boiled peanut fix, made do with a couple of slices of superb Moon Mi pizza.


Finally, and somewhat on a personal note, there is going to be a benefit for the Alzheimer’s Association at the Promenade from 5 until 8 on Thursday, September 4th. It is called “Paint the Promenade Purple” and will be an old-fashioned pub crawl. Captain Woody’s, Cork’s, Corner Perk, The Infield, Latitude Wine Bar, and Moon Mi Pizza will all have purple specials, prizes and a bunch of fun surprises. The charge is $20 in advance and $25 at the door. For more information, please call 843-415-3211. Please be at least 21 and have ID to prove it.


As the baby boom generation enters retirement age, more and more of our family members will be afflicted by various forms of dementia. Many of us, including our family, are already confronting this heartbreaking situation. Come out and have a fun time with us, while we raise dollars to push back against this awful cluster of maladies.

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

From the House

Bluffton Today

This is the third in a series of columns on the education difficulties currently roiling the political waters in Jasper County. Again, I thank all those who called or emailed with comments, suggestions, or additional information. This is obviously an important matter and I am pleased that it is being treated as such.


In the previous two columns, I suggested there is a lack of transparency in the way that the school board and the school district seem to conduct business. With the metrics used to judge the effectiveness of the school district continuing to falter, parents and local residents needed some answers. With confidence in their legislative delegation, the parents and concerned residents began to attend our meetings in hopes of gaining some insight into the persistent failure of the school district or the board to improve educational outcomes.


Last week in this space, there was a discussion of a plan to redraw the school board districts. The current plan was the result of a “friendly settlement” of a lawsuit brought by the ACLU. The redrawn map was included in a bill delivered by Sen. Clementa Pinckney to the House in the waning days of the last session. After viewing the plan, Rep. Weston Newton and I consulted with both the Attorney General and the Speaker of the House as to what might be done to get a less gerrymandered, less politicized map.


The AG declined to directly intervene but he did submit an amicus brief to the court. The “friend of the court” memorandum stated that the customary way to reapportion the districts was a legislative process unless it was determined the redraw fell short of the “one man, one vote” federal standard. Additionally, the SC Constitution calls for the legislature to provide for public education. However, if the court decides to redraw the lines, the brief urges that certain principles be respected. Among those principles are: a bias toward maintaining “recognized communities of interest” as well as upholding, where possible, political or geographical boundaries.


The Speaker indicated he would try to intervene in the suit to return the task to the legislature, but failing that, for the judicial process to include appropriate public input. This makes sense to me, as the cure for a lack of transparency should not be a redraw completely void of public participation. Obviously, this matter is still evolving. One thing that will not change is that the majority of the Jasper delegation will strongly seek the maximum public involvement in this important realignment. Personally, the whole thing just smells bad.


As to the reasons for the FBI and IRS investigations, I need to stand by and wait for the investigation reports. I have heard all manner of accusations and received information, which I’m certain will be part of any thorough investigation. However, with the feeling running so high, I believe we need to let the proper authorities sort it out. One thing I want to say is that Jasper County Council has been unfailingly helpful and cooperative during this entire affair.


There is one likely bit of fallout from all this. When the facts are on the table, everyone will see why it is so important that the public’s business be handled in public. This should give impetus for a more serious legislative look at our Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). In truth, I have not always agreed with the more aggressive expansion of FOIA, but this recent experience has convinced me that we need a better, more effective law.


Next week, preparation for next year’s session and more good economic news for District 118.

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

From the House

Bluffton Today

I want to thank all of you who called and emailed concerning my first installment of several columns focusing on education in Jasper County. There was general agreement among the callers that problems with the school board and school district were a significant reason why Jasper has not advanced economically. Today, I want to continue with my analysis, as well as suggesting that a lack of transparency in both the board and the district contribute strongly to thwarting the will of the great number of parents and other stakeholders who wish to see this area prosper and grow.


It is no secret that increases in population and the distribution of that population in Jasper County has created an urgent need to redraw the voting districts of the school board. With little to show for efforts to improve the measurable outcomes in local education, parents and other concerned residents want answers from the leadership, both the superintendent of education and those who hired and supervise her and her administration. The lack of coherent communication from these leaders has led to a situation where the delegation meetings have become something of a sounding board for those stakeholders who want to know why things are not improving, even as budgets have increased.


Interestingly, there was a bill brought over to the House from Senator Clementa Pinckney in the last days before the adjournment of the just completed session of the General Assembly. The Pinckney bill would have redrawn the Jasper County School Districts. After a close examination of the redistricting plan presented by Sen. Pinckney, the rest of the delegation, including myself, Rep. Weston Newton, and Rep. Bill Bowers, agreed it was not a credible attempt at redistricting, but a political document designed to protect certain incumbents and distress others. South Carolina is known for gerrymandering, but this bill was almost a caricature of geographic manipulation.


As the content of the bill became known, we in the delegation were contacted by school board members, county councilmen and women, as well as a strong contingent of parents and education supporters. They were alarmed and amazed at the brazen attempt to manipulate the system for the benefit of a few and to the detriment of many. Greatest among a host of problems with the bill was that it allowed a couple of folks in a room in Columbia to redraw the district map with absolutely no input from the school parents and other stakeholders. It was the exact opposite of transparency.


In light of the above, the Jasper County House delegation went to the speaker and asked that the House intervene immediately so this Pinckney bill would not be carried forward. We also created a shell bill that would be available to be carried forward to the next session and possibly be a vehicle for a new plan that would reflect the will of the majority of parents and other stakeholders. It should also be remembered that there are four or five ways that a proper redraw can be done, including, but not limited to, a legislative process. The important thing, in my view, is that we make absolutely certain that this is not one of those closed-door deals that cuts the people out of the process.


Next week, I will finish up with this discussion as well as have a few comments about the ACLU suit, and what we should make of it. I will also discuss, as much as can be said, some of the reasons why the FBI, IRS and SLED are all camped out in Jasper County. This is such an important issue, not simply on the merits of redrawing voting districts, but who government works for, and why we need to protect the rights of people to know and understand what is being done in their name.

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

From the House

Bluffton Today

I want to thank all the folks stopping by and checking out the new businesses. We are gratified and somewhat amazed at the surge of commerce in Bluffton and the Lowcountry. We are working diligently to improve the economic situation in Jasper County as well. However, before we can expect great improvement on the economic front, we must improve education in Jasper. I promised an education column, but this is likely to be a series of columns, at least two and probably three. The issue is large and complex, and there are matters afoot that require some background.


Since becoming chairman of the Jasper delegation, the one thing that has impressed me most is the number of parents and other residents who consistently show up at our delegation meetings. Regardless of our agenda, they want to talk about education. They want to know why their children are not getting the education their tax dollars are paying for. They fully understand that education is the key to good jobs, and good jobs supports stable and prosperous families. Stable families are the foundation of solid communities, which, in turn, make it more likely that other such families will join the community. This is the beginning of a virtuous cycle such as we are seeing in a number of places around the state, such as Bluffton.


The entity charged with hiring and supervising the leaders of the local education effort is the Jasper School Board. Although elected by the folks for four-year terms, some members of the board are less than forthcoming about how they decided to hire certain individuals. They are also not happy to discuss the criteria by which they evaluate the success or lack thereof regarding the leaders they have hired. After years of absolute or relative failure to improve test scores, or dropout levels, or most other important criteria, school leadership just doesn’t want to talk about much of anything. This lack of transparency is why we get the concerned citizens at standing-room-only delegation meetings, wanting to talk about education. They know it’s important, they know it is not working, and they want some explanations. The futures of their children are at stake.


Let’s return to this notion of “transparency.” A thing or a process is transparent when you can see into it, when you can see the parts, how they move, and how they do what they do. Historically, politics was not very transparent. Politicians met behind closed doors, made the real decisions, and the folks were given whatever information the politicians thought they could handle. Usually, the information was whatever justified the self-serving actions of the “leaders.”


More recently, educated voters insist that their leaders give them the real information on which they, the electorate, can make good decisions. Laws such as the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) serve to make open government the norm rather than the exception. As we have seen, however, intransigent public officials can defeat FOIA by simply refusing to comply. After the next legislative session, I predict that such strategies will be much less effective.


Another way that you can become an informed voter is to become a part of the government. Appointed boards and commissions are an essential part of government. In fact, there are a huge number of appointments by your delegation to different important boards and commissions currently pending. Call my office and we’ll see if we can’t find a good place for you to serve. One that comes to mind is being formed by my colleague, Rep. Shannon Erickson. She is putting together an anti-bullying task force for Beaufort County. Give her a call. Make a difference.


Next week, we will get into what reasonable folks in Jasper have every right to expect, and the good people on the front lines helping-- as well as an effort to keep the unacceptable status quo, in spite of failure after failure.

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

From the House

Bluffton Today

I had planned to explain what is going on relative to the uproar over the Jasper school system. This is a very serious matter, and I will not have all the facts until at least next week. Please bear with me, as this is something that needs the cleansing power of sunshine before it will get better. When you have the full story, I’m confident you will be as angry and disappointed as I am.


On a happier, local note, the new iteration of Josh Cook’s Corner Perk is off to a great start with a classy ribbon cutting and an opening day full house. Josh is a good friend of mine, and we had been anticipating this day for far too long. When local contractor Randy West took over, the project really started to perk. It has all the comfortable intimacy of the old place with more space, a more convenient location, and most importantly, the same old Josh.


The Corner Perk is just one of a great many new or relocated businesses finding their way to Old Town Bluffton, many also finding good space in the Promenade. In truth, we have had so many ribbon cuttings that the big scissors have had to be sharpened several times.


I am happy to be able to report that around the state, there is a surge of new business. We are seeing the evidence in our quarterly tax collections. The Great Recession is in the rear-view mirror with business confidence soaring. At the risk of seeming to brag about our little part of the Lowcountry, Old Town Bluffton and the rest of District 118 are leading the parade. While those of us in real estate took some hits in the last few years, new businesses in our area actual increased by a big number.


There are a number of reasons why we are seeing such a flowering of the entrepreneurial spirit in our area. It might have something to do with the fact that houses and businesses in Ohio, Michigan, Indiana, and the Northeast have started to change hands again. Folks who were biding their time until things loosened up are now arriving in our neighborhoods, with good ideas for active retirement, as well as some thoughts on what phase two, or three or four will look like in their business lives. To them, I say “welcome,” the party is just getting started.


To those of us who study these things, one of the important features of our success over the years is the fact that our local water quality is still holding up pretty well. It’s almost a cliché that half of Beaufort County is under water at high tide. The recreational and soul-healing aspects of clean water cannot be overestimated.


Fortunately, there is a productive partnership between the Town of Bluffton, Beaufort County, and your legislative delegation, that has long recognized the paramount importance of water quality in our state and in our region. I continue to work with incoming Bluffton Town Manager Marc Orlando, along with our dedicated partners at Department of Health and Environmental Control (SCDHEC) to insure that our yearly water quality allocation for the May River is producing the absolute highest bang for the buck from these scarce dollars. Marc, along with Town of Bluffton Water Quality maven, Kim Jones, and your representative, are working overtime to see that Town Councilman Larry and Tina Toomer’s oyster leases are open and productive, as well as on a trajectory to allow full harvesting as we go through the seasons. A pristine May River and our Town of Bluffton are just a natural fit.

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

From the House

Bluffton Today

There is a lot happening in Bluffton these days. We have a fabulous new neighbor in the Promenade, as well as some well-planned changes at the Bluffton Town Hall.


My good friend, Bluffton Town Manager Anthony Barrett, is retiring. After more than five years of leading the administrative part of the town government, Anthony and his lovely wife, Angelica, are embarking on the next phase of their loving partnership. Leaving the town in great shape, with a newly awarded AA plus bond rating, the Barretts will be greatly missed. He was a true friend to me and to Bluffton. His knowledge, wisdom and experience were key factors in the great strides made in our not-so-little town. I know many of you will want to go by town hall and express your gratitude to this excellent public servant.


The sadness of losing Anthony Barrett is somewhat tempered by the fact that his job will be assumed by another good friend, current Assistant Town Manager Marc Orlando. Marc joined the town staff over ten years ago, and has had success in each of the positions he has held. From planner to administrator to economic development official, Marc has brought competence and class to each day of his tenure. I have every confidence that his past accomplishments are a mere introduction to what we can expect from this talented leader and public servant.


In fact, a couple of years ago, we took a look at all the planners and visionaries who have contributed to taking Bluffton from what it was, to what it is becoming. We looked for folks who had made a real difference in preserving the very best of “the old days” while opening the door for a new era of economic prosperity, historic preservation, conservation of our natural resources, and the fostering of the very best part of our Bluffton culture. Marc Orlando was deemed to embody all the visionary qualities, as well as the skills and the passion to translate great ideas to a great community.


In recognition of all these factors, a Resolution of the South Carolina House of Representatives was passed, citing Marc’s leadership in helping to define and refine what we as a community should be about. It’s on the wall of the statehouse for the duration.


Our new neighbor in the Promenade is the Lost Art Building. It is at the beginning of State of Mind Street, which is appropriate. This gorgeous old brick structure is a striking piece of functional architecture. Housing sumptuous residential upstairs and an intimate, high quality restaurant on the ground floor, it is a rare gem. Margie and Jimmy have created a building we can be proud of. The level of fit and finish is just superb. I am confident that both the residential and the restaurant will raise the standard for Old Town and beyond.


Years ago, when we were holding meeting after meeting for community input on the Promenade, we pretty much all agreed that towns rarely stay the same. They either go up or go down. The Lost Art Building is a leading indicator, in my view, of where we are heading.


Next time, I will have some comments on the ACLU suit in Jasper County, what it means, who is responsible, and why this level of political machination is profoundly hurtful to the good folks of this county. Schools are our best mechanism of social mobility, but for generations, the good people of Jasper County have been denied the benefits of good public schools. It must stop.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

From the House

Bluffton Today

I really appreciate all the calls and emails about the last few columns. I know there can be a little confusion with what the House passes, especially early in the session, and what ultimately becomes law. Each year, after the session is over, before we really start getting ready for next year, I try to give you a rundown of what was accomplished, why it was configured the way it was, and what it means for our neighborhood.


Today, I’d like to talk a little about the service you get from the state. Whether you are a restaurant that gets inspected periodically, a taxpayer who might have a complex tax situation, or any other citizen dealing with the state bureaucracy. If you get bad or indifferent service, I need to hear about it. Conversely, if your experience is good and your service is outstanding, I want to hear the details of that as well.


It might interest you to know that I originally ran for the statehouse at the urging of my wife, Mary. We had various businesses and the state was just eating our lunch with paperwork, much of it either silly or redundant. Mary is a successful businessperson in her own right. She observed that the only way we were going to get away from this paper chase was to have more of a business-friendly representative in the statehouse. That was over a dozen years ago, and I believe we have done good work in eliminating superfluous regulation, as well as the reams of questionable paperwork.


I’ll give you an example of how this used to work. Around 2008, I began getting calls from my friends in Sun City with issues concerning Department of Health and Human Services (SCDHHS). There was a couple in Beaufort having trouble with adoptive issues. As the complaints began to mount, not only here, but in other areas, I requested that the Legislative Audit Council take a look. This was a step I took reluctantly, as I knew a number of local DHHS workers, and they were all spoken of very highly by supervisors and clients. As it turned out, the problem was in Columbia with a very few managers.


The audit was done and recommendations made. This was usually the end of the story. This legislator and several others asked for a follow-up several months later. Most, but not all, of the recommendations had been implemented. The problems were less, but not eliminated. In short order, they were all eliminated. If you are interested in seeing for yourself, I have the documents in the office, and like the budget, you can check them out and return them the next day.


While we still have a few problems with DHHS, the new leadership at DHEC has done a superb job of making certain that complaints are reviewed and acted on immediately. We can thank Catherine Templeton for the renewed focus on customer service. My go-to guy at DHEC is the Director of Legislative and Constituent Services, Jonathon Yarborough. Jonathon is a smart man with a tremendous resume, who knows where the levers are to make things happen. Since he took his undergraduate degree at Clemson and his law degree at USC, he is a popular fellow.


By far my favorite state employee for a long time was a restaurant inspector, now retired and living at Alljoy, named Audress Hill. When we owned Shuckers, she was our health inspector. She knew that her job was to protect the public health, and not necessarily to just serve the paperwork. We remember her with fondness and respect.


The takeaway here is: If you have problems with services performed by the state, call me. If you received excellent service and want to comment on your state employee’s good work, call me. We all need to hear both.

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

From the House

Bluffton Today

It was good to see the crowds at the various 4th of July celebrations we were fortunate enough to attend. Our part of the Lowcountry must be among the most patriotic areas of the country. With our large population of military retirees, as well as the fact that our population trends a little older and a little more conservative, it is not really that surprising. For whatever reason, it truly makes me proud to be an American, and able to express my patriotism with my equally patriotic neighbors and constituents.


Speaking of our neighbors in the Lowcountry, we have had quite a few meetings recently with our Jasper County friends. As many of you know, I am the chairman of the Jasper County delegation, at least until the end of the year. The other members are Rep. Weston Newton, Rep. Bill Bowers, Sen. Tom Davis, and Sen. Clem Pinckney. For a variety of good and not-so-good reasons, our Jasper delegation meetings are always packed beyond capacity with folks wishing to speak on a variety of issues, some under the control of the delegation, and some outside our strict jurisdiction but heard nonetheless. A part of good governance is simply to provide a venue for folks to say what they need to say.


The recent past has seen a lot of change in Jasper, some for the good, and some simply a different version of the same old thing. There have always been a group of citizens in this area who want to do the right thing, regardless of the institutional pushback. Our delegation meetings have become the place where people feel they can have their say. The school system is often the source of the most passionate disappointment. There is no lack of understanding that education is the key to lifting those from generations of poverty up to join the new prosperity in our part of South Carolina. Unfortunately, there is a great deal of institutional inertia that needs to be overcome for things to move forward.


The ACLU has filed a lawsuit, hoping to realign the school districts to more equitably represent the will of the folks, as they choose new school board members. While I have often looked askance at the ACLU on some of their projects, this is something that needed to happen years ago as the population shifts in the county began to occur. I will keep you posted on the progress.


There is, however, a solid piece of good news on this matter, having to do with the presumptive replacement for Rep. Patrick in District 123. Jeff Bradley is a financial advisor and all around good guy who has stepped forward to assume this important seat as Rep. Andy Patrick has indicated he will resign after his current term. One of the several ways that Jeff has distinguished himself in recent years is as a coordinator of a series of GED camps.
What this means is that young people who, for whatever reason, have left high school without a diploma, can attend a camp with volunteer mentor/councilors who will encourage and tutor the individual to take and pass the General Education Development (GED) test, to be awarded high school equivalency status. The final step in the program is an interview with either the folks at University of South Carolina Beaufort (USCB) or Technical College of the Lowcountry (TCL). They are encouraged to think seriously about what kind of career or job they wish to pursue, and how these excellent facilities may fit into those plans. This program is being introduced in Jasper after a number of successful camps in Beaufort County. I believe this program is a game-changer.


While we work on the future, Jeff has come up with a way to heal parts of the past.

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

From the House

Bluffton Today

Last Thursday, Rep. Weston Newton and I, along with Sen. Tom Davis, had a great outing with the Sun City Republican Club. As usual, club leader Jim Lee and his wife made us feel welcome. So welcome, in fact, that the socializing almost overtook our brief remarks. I have a long history with these good folks, but it still kind of amazes me that this Sun City community is home to so many well-informed and active residents. It was no surprise that Tom, Weston and I left the event having learned a lot more than we were able to impart. Good friends, lively conversation, and strong conservative support—what’s not to like about that?


The meeting was a time for a little policy discussion, just a modest amount of anticipation of what’s coming next session, combined with a recitation of a few of the “wins” scored by your Beaufort/Jasper delegation during the recent session. With this legislator on House Ways and Means Committee and chairman of Ways and Means Provisos subcommittee, and Sen. Davis on Senate Finance Committee, many of our wins were measured in tax dollars repatriated back to our neighborhoods.


In the immediate Sun City neighborhood, the Technical College of the Lowcountry (TCL) got a nice bump in appropriation dollars. This is part of our long-time emphasis on preparing the next generation of highly skilled workers for the good jobs flowing to South Carolina. A couple of TCL board members were in the audience, beaming approval.


Once again, the hard work of your delegation, combined with the persistent efforts of Chancellor Jane Upshaw and Vice-Chancellor Lynn McGee, moved the University of South Carolina Beaufort (USCB) a couple of notches closer to fiscal parity with comparable members of our university system. I consider this a win as well. The reason we are not up to full parity after so much concerted effort has nothing to do with merit or productivity, and very much to do with some inside baseball machinations that don’t cast an entirely positive light on our statehouse process. If you ask, I’ll share it in private, but it’s not for publication (just yet).


After being disappointed last year and vetoed this year, the Waddell Mariculture Center in Greater Bluffton finally got the renovation dollars necessary to bring this world-class marine research station up to code. With millions of gallons of salt water flowing through the pumps and valves of this extremely productive installation, it is almost miraculous they have been able to keep the physical plant going, and still do their day-to-day mission for as long as they have. Al Stokes and his crew have done a great deal with not very much for many years.


While I was mystified by the veto of these crucial funds, we were all heartened by the statewide support for the overturning of this particularly imprudent veto. Fishermen will put up with a lot of foolishness, but there is a limit. House and Senate members around the state got full inboxes for the week between the veto and the slam-dunk override.


Finally, the birthday celebration of our nation is in a couple of days. There will be fireworks and cookouts, along with more than a few patriotic celebrations, some of which may involve adult beverages. Please don’t drink and drive. I can’t be any plainer than that. Sheriff Tanner and Bluffton Chief Reynolds will have all their folks on the roads looking to keep us safe from ourselves and from each other. At the very least, a DUI is expensive and embarrassing.


Have a happy 4th of July, but please be safe.