McDowell and Bruce 2019 council forum

Columbia City Councilman Ed McDowell, left, is facing two opponents on Nov. 5: Catherine Fleming Bruce, right, and Anna Fonseca (not pictured).

There are often points during an election when campaign politics intersect with the implementation of policy in real time.

Such is the case in the Columbia City Council race in District 2, where incumbent Ed McDowell and one of his challengers have disagreed on a new law recently enacted by Council.

McDowell, a retired pastor, was first elected to City Council in 2015, and is seeking his second term. He’s being challenged by Catherine Fleming Bruce and Anna Fonseca. Bruce is an activist and author, whose book The Sustainers: Being, Building and Doing Good Through Activism in the Sacred Spaces of Civil Rights, Human Rights and Social Movements won the 2017 Historic Preservation Book Prize from the University of Mary Washington’s Center for Historic Preservation. Fonseca worked in the planning department at Richland County for a number of years and currently is an executive officer at Hilburn Holdings, a Cayce development company.

McDowell and Bruce have been at odds over the city’s new vacant building registration ordinance, which council passed in a unanimous vote on Oct. 15.

The law requires property owners to register vacant buildings with the city within four months of them becoming vacant. Owners will have to work with the city to establish a plan to make the structures ready for occupancy. The vacant properties will have to be registered each year, and the first annual renewal on a residential property is $50. A second annual renewal is $250, and the fee goes up to $500 the third year an any year thereafter.

The ordinance also has an annual inspection fee of $50.

Proponents have argued the ordinance will help address the blight of vacant homes in the city, and help with public safety in connection with the vacancies.

But Bruce — who says she’ll focus on sidewalk and water quality improvements, among other things, if elected — is concerned that the law could be financially onerous for property owners.

“I don’t think I’d want to put everyone in a registry and make every house get an inspection that people have to pay for and then have an [occupancy] plan,” she says. “There are various decisions that can be made, and there are consequences for those decisions. Tax consequences, other kinds of consequences. I don’t know if we should kind of push people into doing that without any kind of consideration of those consequences.

“Then there is the idea that an empty building automatically [has] a negative impact. I feel like, if you have people looking out for the building and it’s not violating any codes, that should get a different treatment.”

McDowell, who says he’d look to focus on public safety and addressing food insecurity in low-income neighborhoods, among other things, in a second term, defended the vacant building ordinance, a measure he supported. He says some vacant buildings become hot spots for illicit activity.

“My issue is one of safety and security,” McDowell says. “Some of these vacant houses, yes, are trouble spots.”

McDowell noted an eminent domain clause that was initially in the vacant building ordinance was removed, and pushed back against whispers the city will use the new law as leverage to take people’s property.

“The assumption is that the city wants to take the property,” the councilman tells Free Times. “The city doesn’t need the property. We don’t want the property. If we tear it down, we’ve got greenspace that we’ve got to keep cut every month.”

Meanwhile, there is Fonseca, a resident of Governor’s Hill, an enclave in the downtown Arsenal Hill neighborhood, just northwest of Finlay Park. A first-time candidate, Fonseca has run a low-key campaign in her attempt to grab the District 2 seat, at least compared to her two opponents

She tells Free Times she’d look to leverage relationships in the private sector to help bolster funding for various initiatives in the city.

“I’d focus on private-public partnerships,” she tells Free Times. “Government can’t come up with all the money [it needs for initiatives] from taxes. We’ve got to have some innovative partnerships to get things done. I think that’s what’s lacking in the city of Columbia. I think everybody looks for the government to come up with funding. … The great cities across the state and the country have become great cities because they’ve had leadership that has been innovative in getting funding from other sources to implement social programs and all the things that make great cities great.”

Fonseca says, if elected, she’d make pedestrian infrastructure a priority in her first term. She says she’d be willing to collaborate with the state Department of Transportation and others to enhance the walking experience in Columbia.

“I would work to make this city more pedestrian-friendly,” she says. “Taylor Street, for instance, that’s a speedway. That’s a highway, as far as I’m concerned. Let’s make it pedestrian-friendly, and make this a walkable city. We have great, great points where we could connect the dots, we just need to know how to do them, and we need to work with the right people at the table to make it happen.”  

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