Charleston City Council meeting reinforces self-governing faith

John Tecklenburg. Paul Zoeller/Staff

A perfect storm agenda of major impact issues framed Charleston City Council’s mega-meeting Tuesday.

The city’s energetic interest groups were paying attention to the ragout of proposals, including the Sgt. Jasper legal and zoning issues, bike safety generally and bike lanes specifically on the Ashley River bridges, and a new hotel in the cramped Concord Street waterfront tract now occupied by the S.C. State Ports Authority.

One controversial issue can dominate any municipality’s meeting. Three really big ones at one meeting becomes a test of process, style and public input — and elected leaders’ commitments to preparation. And this meeting would also be a timely display of a new mayor’s skills for handling big crowds, big debates and big decisions. Actually, the agenda read as an endurance exam for the 12 men and one woman elected to govern Travel + Leisure World’s “Best City In The World,” the latest honor — or burden — for a city that seems suddenly at ground-zero for broad-range growth and demographic pattern shifts.

New hotels — a big deal policy issue for fragile peninsular Charleston.

Residential density — a big deal for neighborhoods with little if any options for expanding street capacities.

Bike safety and bike lanes — a big deal for a population becoming more health conscious and more environmentally conscious, and for those who just enjoy bike riding.

Affordable housing — a strategic imperative for a city thriving on tourism and bursting-at-the-seams high-end housing markets. Nothing good happens in the “best” city on the planet without a really good workforce — and workers require housing they can afford.

Hundreds of Charlestonians were attracted to Ballroom 3 at the new Gaillard Auditorium. Most stuck it out to the end — a nearly six-hour experience. The dialogue was constructive and at times emotive. Council members’ debates generally suggested thoughtful preparation and with a few momentary exceptions, comity seemed to bind Mayor John Tecklenburg and his 12 council colleagues.

We can reckon that half the citizens attending went home happy and half disappointed. But no one should have been disappointed with the process. It was an exercise of good municipal government, unrushed and transparent, with informative tangential discussions about legalities and long-term strategies and subset issues — like affordable housing, and disappointment with a state government which takes generations — or longer — to accomplish projects such as replacements for the T. Allen Legare Jr. and World War I Memorial Ashley River bridges.

Public access was no problem for this meeting. There was free parking in the adjacent city parking garage and a designated “park” for a fleet of bikes. The mayor imposed a 20-minute limit on public comments on the major items, and he asked the crowds to consolidate presentations, avoid repetitiveness, cheering and applause. Then he patiently indulged the inevitable repetitiveness, cheering and applause.

The agenda-prescribed 30-minute public comment period started with two-minute limits — and ended with every speaker asked to limit comments to 30 seconds so more could speak. Clerk of Council Vanessa Turner Maybank called “time” 27 times. Tecklenburg let every person standing in the three lines have a least a moment to comment. It was a classic venting of thoughtful and strong feelings about pending government decisions. The “30-minute” public comment period lasted nearly an hour.

Council members seemed determined to acknowledge political equations and loquaciously demonstrate they had been working hard to understand and resolve the issues. There was clearly a “West Ashley” dynamic in most debates.

Tecklenburg was impressive. For a man so new to public office, he controlled his meeting well, like Joe Riley.

Well, sort of. Actually Mayor Tecklenburg used good humor to calm rough spots of debate. He called the Sgt. Jasper matter “a complex conundrum.” As for the bike lanes controversy, he reminded his colleagues that he was new, “... and I wish you all had solved this problem last year.”

He was loose and fair-minded with the audience and deferential with his colleagues. At the end of each debate, he explained his own position clearly and earnestly, providing insights most folks had not heard nor thought of before.

As others spoke, the new mayor stretched and fidgeted, as if his back hurt — and hours into this meeting, it probably did.

He rubbed his hands incessantly — as if he were preparing to remove his velvet gloves.

But his patience and levity persisted as levers in a process of citizens eager to speak and councilmen equally eager to register their summary positions. So, it was a test — no, make that an endurance exam for Mayor Tecklenburg and his colleagues. They passed with flying colors.

And the Sgt. Jasper “Gateway” overlay concept passed with the required super 10-vote majority. The bikes lane’s cooperative agreement with Charleston County passed with a slim one-vote majority. The Concord Street hotel developers’ request for height restriction adjustments passed after minimal discussion and debate.

By agenda, that was no ordinary meeting for Charleston City Council Tuesday. By process, it was an operation of local government repeated several times a week in Greater Charleston. More folks ought to show up at regular municipal and county governance meetings. The issues come alive with information and insights that inform press and other media reports.

Ron Brinson, a former associate editor of this newspaper, is a North Charleston city councilman. He can be reached at rbrin1013@gmail.com.