Individually they’re all great people certainly, but as a group I’d say the Charleston City Council has been a disappointment — and that’s putting it mildly.
Now let’s be clear. These are all public servants who put in a great deal of time, have to answer to a lot of people, listen to a myriad of complaints, receive little validation in return and don’t get paid a lot of money. And I’m just another complaining citizen who has gotten utterly frustrated.
Mayor John Tecklenburg had the unenviable position of being sworn into office 3½ years ago as a relative political novice and in the footsteps of Mayor Joe Riley, a stalwart and progressive figure who held office for 40 years and under whose leadership Charleston was transformed from a sleepy Southern town with a relatively anemic economy into a shimmering economic powerhouse and international destination.
The question 43 years ago (joking) was how much do we have to pay Conde Nast and related publications to put Charleston at the top of their lists. Now it’s how much do we have to pay them to put Charleston at the bottom — or, better yet, remove it altogether. In the timing is everything department, Riley exited the stage just as Charleston’s growing pains were becoming particularly noticeable and as the existential threat of rising waters became more than just a threat.
Mayor Riley won several crucial and bitterly fought disputes early in his mayoral career — most notably getting Charleston Place off the ground and running — and was a leading advocate for the creation of Spoleto Festival USA. He garnered numerous accolades and awards over the years in the realms of city planning, urban design, the conceptualization of parks and open spaces, and used his influence to ensure that major building projects were as architecturally beautiful as practicality and financing would allow. He expanded the city’s boundaries, put Daniel Island on the tax map and beat down the town of James Island until it didn’t matter anymore.
He faced three major crises: Hurricane Hugo, the Sofa Super Store fire and the mass shooting at Mother Emanuel, handling each with a calmly reassuring, sensitive and empathetic presence at the helm. Hurricane Hugo may have brought out the best in him. He worked very well with the black community and his legacy project, the International African American Museum, will become a reality.
Riley’s accomplishments early on solidified his position as a strong mayor and — with the exception of an occasional annoyance here and there — he overall held City Council in the palm of his hand. For the most part, people didn’t mess with Joe. He’d put a hurtin’ on ya — not literally, but there are all kinds of stories of telephone receivers sounding like megaphones and trips to the woodshed for those who crossed him. This usually translated into things getting done — Joe’s way.
It’s probable no one could have predicted the success of all these initiatives or some of the downstream concerns that we’re all, including Mayor Tecklenburg, now having to manage. Tecklenburg is real estate professional by training who did not go to law school or serve in political office (sound familiar on a presidential level? — not that there’s any comparison) before becoming mayor.
Which brings us full circle back to a City Council that, smelling fresh bait, has obstreperously refused for the most part to work with the mayor on major initiatives limiting growth, proliferation of hotels and even designating as a priority the shoring up a crumbling Battery sea wall — a part of the city which is historically sensitive, expensive to maintain and generates plenty of property tax (for now, anyway) and tourist revenue — those same tourists who would stay in all the hotels they want built. The internal audit pertaining to the mayor’s alleged inappropriate spending habits at the expense of taxpayers has turned into a comedic farce and become way more expensive than the original amount of money under investigation. Meanwhile, little is getting done and it’s politics as usual, which is to say frustrating.
Speaking of politics, my friend Kathleen (Mrs. Charles P.) Summerall, whose progressive political views are the yang to my yin, says an op-ed by South Carolina’s national committeewoman to the Republican National Committee (which appeared last month in the P&C), was “immensely depressing and only repeated the atavistic and fossilized views of the tired old Republican party and its peculiar support of an out-of-control president.
“Speaking as an 86-year-old, I would advise her not to worry about the Democrats’ messages to SC voters, whose presidential candidates are bold, brave, brilliant, educated and passionate people that thrill and inspire me. Actually, Democrats are on the move in South Carolina. There are plenty of moderate people under the big tent of the Democrats — people like Joe Cunningham and Joe Biden and, at last, there’s a viable opponent for Senator Lindsay Sham (nicknamed such by young voters) in the person of Jaime Harrison.
“Recently, I was talking to a young newcomer to our city and had the temerity to inquire if he was a Democrat. He fastened me with a level gaze and said, ‘I am a rational person.’ Wow!”