Kiawah Island groups hired ex-Charleston councilman

Maurice Washington

KIAWAH ISLAND -- Town and community groups hired a former Charleston city councilman specifically to push for a new County Council vote on the derailed Sea Islands Greenway, according to a confidential email.

Maurice Washington also was tasked with pushing state officials to fund the controversial project, according to the email from Kiawah Town Councilman Al Burnaford to Mayor Steve Orban.

The email was sent before Washington was hired in February by the Kiawah Island Community Association. The town also contributed to his pay.

Washington and an association official earlier described his job as community outreach, working with Johns Island residents who oppose the road. Washington compared the job to consultants who worked with East Side residents on locating the footprint for the Arthur Ravenel Bridge in Charleston.

When asked about the Burnaford email, Washington said that meeting with elected officials is an appropriate part of the community engagement process because the officials are important community voices.

"Those (email) conversations may have been early in the process when folks were trying to figure out the issues," he told The Post and Courier, which obtained the email and others under the Freedom of Information Act. "I think some may want to interpret them more narrowly than the original intent. If emails are an important part of the discussion, then the (Johns Island road) safety, congestion and evacuation issues are as well."

Burnaford said it was his understanding at the time of the email that Washington had been hired to push for the vote and funding, but his understanding now is that Washington was hired to better inform the people of Johns Island on the safety issues surrounding the need for the road, to achieve a community consensus that would change the council vote.

Washington was hired "to work with Johns Island residents and work with the (county) council to get a positive vote" as part of a four- or five-year effort by the town and the community association to work with the Johns Island community to get a safer road, Orban said when asked about the emails.

Elected officials, though, were mentioned early on. When Washington, a former Charleston City Council member and a South Carolina State University board member, was being considered for the job, he asked to bring S.C. Sen. Robert Ford and County Council Chairman Teddie Pryor to see golf course clubhouses and a hotel on Kiawah and Seabrook islands, according to a separate email.

Washington was hired for $100,000 for five months by the Kiawah community association, a property-owners group. The towns of Kiawah and Seabrook islands, along with the Seabrook property owner's association, contributed to his salary. According to an email, the Beach Co., a development company, also contributed to his pay.

While promoting the greenway as a traffic-safety improvement and hurricane-evacuation route, Kiawah community association chairman Paul Roberts also described it as an economic development benefit, with new housing planned in its rural Johns Island area, and as a route for the PGA Tournament in 2012. Those descriptions were in a letter to U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham asking him to seek $20 million for the project.

The letter also said the greenway was needed partly to provide ground transportation to the Charleston Executive Airport as an emergency backup to Charleston Air Force Base.

The base's first choice in an emergency would be another Air Force base because it would have the necessary infrastructure, said Thomas Kistler, a base public affairs representative.

Graham did not request an appropriation, said Kevin Bishop, his communications director.

The greenway, a parkway-style limited-access road, has been sought by the resort island groups as an improved route to and from Kiawah and Seabrook islands, bypassing two-lane country roads along Johns Island. It has been stymied by opposition from some Johns Island residents who want improvements to existing roads and say the new road would accelerate unwanted development across an area of centuries-old farmland.

Charleston County Council shelved the road in 2010 to seek money to improve existing roads.

The resort island groups "want the greenway. They do not want something other than that," said Johns Island resident Rich Thomas, who has opposed its construction. Thomas also sought the emails and the letter to Graham under the Freedom of Information Act.

Reach Bo Petersen at 937-5744.