Economic development strategy is generally a hush-hush operation, but the challenges faced by the Charleston Regional Development Alliance are no longer confined behind closed doors. Officials with Berkeley, Charleston and Dorchester counties are threatening to pull the funding plug on the CRDA, and instead work with their in-house economic development experts to bring new business and industry to the region.

County officials need to take a deep collective breath before leaving a public-private alliance that has helped bring billions in investments and thousands of jobs to the region since the CRDA was formed in 1995. The critics should have to make their case, and back it up with facts and figures. And any action should be considered - and finally decided - by the elected officials who have supported the CRDA in their respective budgets. Primarily, those are the members of the three county councils.

Charleston County Council Chairman Teddie Pryor, in particular, needs to put the brakes on his plan to withdraw county support without council's consideration or vote.

"Charleston County is out," Mr. Pryor flatly stated last week. "We're moving forward with something different, and if the other counties want to, that's fine."

Mr. Pryor needs to remember that he is chosen by his colleagues to preside over their meetings and select committee members. He doesn't have the authority to take unilateral action on behalf of the county or the council.

Mr. Pryor, who plans to brief council on the CRDA at Thursday's Finance Committee meeting, can expect opposition from some of his fellow council members at that committee of the whole. Councilman Herb Sass, for example, says that council voted for the budget allocation that helps sustain the CRDA, and only council can withhold those funds.

Mr. Sass also has questions about CRDA operations and expenditures, but wants more answers before making a decision on cutting further affiliation with the alliance. That's the right course to take. Meanwhile, CRDA officials should have ample opportunity to answer their critics.

Objections have surfaced about CRDA spending for salaries and perquisites, and for "wining and dining" representatives of existing businesses, rather than fully concentrating on developing new industrial and commercial prospects.

Any time public money is involved, those are legitimate questions for elected officials to raise.

But Santee Cooper President Lonnie Carter, who serves as chairman of the CRDA, makes the point that the alliance has brought in more than $7.5 billion in new investment and 27,500 new jobs during its existence.

If economic development officials of the individual counties think they can do as well or better, they should be prepared to explain how.

The counties should be clear about the stakes, and should approach the CRDA issue with clear-eyed objectivity and not act rashly.

At the least, elected officials in each county , as well as CRDA representatives, should have the opportunity to weigh in before terminating a 19-year relationship that has seen significant advances on the economic development front in the tri-county region.