No easy fix for Dorchester divide

David Chinnis

COMPILED BY THE POST AND COURIER

SUMMERVILLE -- Dorchester County has been described as two worlds separated by a swamp. The divide is as wide as the countryside in the upper county; the rivalry as pressed as tightly as the subdivision homes in the lower.

Nowhere is it more apparent than in County Council meetings.

The council alternates its meetings between Summerville in the lower county and St. George in the upper, two per month in the council chambers in one town or the other. That means two aggravating, 60-mile or so round-trip drives every other month for some council members, any number of staff and, of course, residents who want to attend.

And it means that a controversial issue often gets its first preliminary vote in one place and decisive third vote in the other -- with one of the votes likely to be miles from the end of the county the issue affects. That might not be the most representative sort of government, as first-term Councilman David Chinnis pointed out this week.

Chinnis, a businessman who represents a Summerville-area district, said that with 80 percent of the population in the lower county around Summerville, it might make more sense to weigh the distribution of meetings to reflect those numbers. In other words, hold more meetings in Summerville. The veteran council members each gave a knowing little grin.

There's no easy fix to the dilemma, and a long, antagonistic history in the way of a fix. Each end of the county makes no bones about looking out for its own and wanting equal treatment.

The people of each area push their own interests, politics, businesses or schools. Over the years they have fumed and feuded and muttered secession.

The division is so cut and dried that the county keeps offices on both ends. Councilman Jay Byars, who represents a Summerville-area district, admitted he could get lost trying to get to some places in the upper county.

In post-Colonial days, holding an election meant a virtual war between factions -- complete with loud shows of whiskey, cash, barbecue invectives and wagon-then-bus-hauled voters. Who you supported could well make the difference as to whether you had a job when it was over.

It was so ruthlessly partisan that at least one set of results was overthrown in the state legislature. As recently as the 1980s, the division between upper and lower county interests stymied the formation of a countywide fire district.

While Summerville has grown into a suburb with its own sprawling shopping mall mecca and franchise businesses, the upper county has remained more rural and homespun. Upper county loyalty is now tinged with a determination not to be left out.

After Chinnis spoke, Council Chairman Larry Hargett said delicately that the change would cause a lot of grief in St. George. Councilman Willie Davis, retired rural school teacher and administrator who represents a largely upper county district, wasn't so delicate. There are stores in St. George, too, he told Chinnis, a technical manager for Asahi Photo Products. The stores even sell nice, professional-type shoes.

"If you come (to a meeting) early, you might be able to stop and buy a pair of shoes in Dorchester County," Davis said. "I'm looking forward to the day when we might be able to shop in (rural) Dorchester County."

Reach Bo Petersen at 937-5744 or follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/bopete.