Charleston Mayor Joe Riley: Questions and Answers

During an hourlong interview last month, longtime Charleston Mayor Joe Riley rattled off a long list of projects he wants to get to, from improving drainage to adding new city parks and monitoring the Gaillard auditorium site re-do. "I should be in these next two years not just wrapping up things but I should be working on initiatives that will be continuing or might be beginning," Riley said.

Charleston Mayor Joe Riley has two years left in his 10th term in office. While he said this is his last go-round in the city's top job, he doesn't show any signs of slowing down.

Pausing for an hour-long interview last month, Riley rattled off a long list of 53 city projects he's following, from improving drainage to adding new city parks to a major renovation of Gaillard Auditorium.

Riley, at 70 years old and just seven weeks removed from hip replacement surgery, said he's usually in the office by 8 a.m. each day, with up to 18 meetings on his calendar not out of the question.

Yet he still tries to block off a part of his daily schedule for what he calls "thinking and creative time."

"You've got to be careful you just don't become a machine," he said of the job of mayor.

Riley sat down for a question-and-answer interview with The Post and Courier shortly before the Christmas holiday. His answers are edited for brevity.

Question: As you talk to people, do you find a degree of skepticism about your statement that you won't run again in 2015?

Answer: "It's very nice. I find a mix of skepticism or of genuine encouragement or even a stronger plea that I do run for re-election, which is very kind and heartening.

"But I tell them all that it's a sound and irrevocable decision."

Q: What are the most important things for you to wrap up during these last two years? The International African-American History Museum and the Crosstown drainage improvements come to mind?

A: "I should be in these next two years not just wrapping up things but I should be working on initiatives that will be continuing or might be beginning.

"A city should never be static. That is, it should not be on pause."

Q: What are you sorry about that you won't be able to tackle with the clock running?

A: "I would hope that the lawsuits are disposed of and the passenger terminal is under construction so that we could begin working in earnest with the Ports Authority and the community in the planning for the redevelopment of the southern part of Union Pier."

"I'm confident that they all will be resolved in favor of the cruise terminal being constructed and relocated, which is so advantageous to the city."

Q: You were a huge advocate for finishing Interstate 526 across Johns and James islands, even though it was mostly, and politically, a Charleston County project. What makes you so right about the need for it, and those against it so wrong?

A: "What everybody who works with me knows is that I ask when we do something 'does it pass the 25- or 50-year test?'

"The completion of the I-526 is essential for West Ashley residents or people who use west of the Ashley who depend on it to get around. Because by stopping I-526 at Savannah Highway, you create a bottleneck that will only grow."

Q: In that vein, what makes you so right about the cruise ship industry here and the opponents so wrong?

A: Charleston's role as a port city has "been part of the city's DNA forever," he said, pointing to the large number of container ships that visit annually.

"Why wouldn't you have some cruise ship activity as a part of that? It would be almost like a 'phony' to say 'well, you know, we got all these other ships, we're not going to have any cruise ships here.' It doesn't make any sense."

Q: What are your plans for retirement?

A: (Laughs). "I'm not sure. I would want to be busy working. I may do some teaching at colleges here, and may, if there's a city that needs some advice around the country, or something (on) a development issue. I plan to be busy but certainly not the intensity of the schedule I have, and have some more time to myself and my family."

Q: Is there a book in you? Either as a memoir or a history of the city during your 40 years as mayor - your version of "From Boards to Boardrooms?" (former Charleston Mayor Palmer Gaillard's memoir).

A: "I feel that I have a duty to try to do that. I would like to do that. I feel that's a responsibility. Those are not easy to do ... and to make them interesting. There are a lot of published memoirs that put people to sleep."

Q: Or even creating some sort of urban planning foundation, or teaching a college class? We're hearing the College of Charleston and The Citadel are eager to have you participate in some fashion?

A: "Both have communicated with me, and I'm interested in both."

Q: How many people have met with you to express their interest in running for mayor in 2015?

A: "I really haven't had that many come to see me yet."

Q: What qualities will the best candidate have for the job as mayor of Charleston in the 21st century?

A: (Riley points to the more than 700 people who work for Charleston.) "Your duty is to effectively lead, motivate, inspire those people to achieve excellence for the city."

He continued, "It's about seeking excellence in everything."

Q: I know there's lots of time left, but do you plan to endorse anyone ahead of the election?

A: "I don't know yet. I would if I felt that I had a duty to. But it just depends. I think if there's somebody who is substantially superior, or I think would be better, then I might."

Q: Any fences you want to mend before you leave office?

A: (Riley answers no, there isn't.) "In this job there's no room for holding grudges or having any anger. Because each day creates another opportunity."

Q: What do you think your legacy will be? Spoleto? Revitalizing downtown? Hurricane Hugo?

A: "That's not for me to say."

Q: Finish this sentence: "On the first morning after my retirement I plan to ..."

A: "Get up early, take a nice long walk and happily begin a new phase of my professional life."