Think It Through: Part II
By George Knapp
Second in a series of opinion/editorials shared with the News and Press from a citizen of Darlington, S.C.
I have lived in Darlington for over 6 years and while that seems to pale in comparison to some residents who can trace their roots to this area over many generations, let me assure you that I am part of this community. I am trying to use my talents to provide the most impactful form of involvement that I feel I can, by being a resource that asks questions. This may sound like a lazy form of involvement, but the tradition of questioning the reasoning of others goes back at least as far as the roots of democracy itself.
I attended my first Council session over five years ago when our current Chief of Police was being put in front of the group as part of the process of interviewing him for that position. Since then, I must admit, I have not been a frequent attendee, maybe only attending five or six more sessions, mostly in the last 18 months. However, there seems to me to be a clear underlying premise as to how these meetings work that was just as obvious to me five years ago, as it was at the last session. It seems that decisions are made in advance, via some method or another, and that the public sessions are basically a floorshow where the wishes of the Council are ceremoniously revealed to an awaiting public.
I fully understand that unlike ancient Athens, we live in a representative democracy and we vote for and elect a group of people that we hope represent best our views of the world and further we abdicate our voting on any specific topic to the majority winner of that election process. Therefore, I am not critical of Council for discharging their responsibilities and taking action by their own accord. What bothers me is that there doesn’t seem to be a clear or well-communicated process for them to understand what it is those citizens that they represent actually wants. It seems obvious that each Council member and the Mayor (this includes the former Mayor) have their own agenda and do not make much of an effort to include other points of view into their decisions, even when those other points of view may be well communicated, logical, and frankly best for the City.
A more recent example is the eight acres of annexation and the following zoning considerations for the Evans properties near Barfield Road. This issue was first read to the public in the last meeting and it was abundantly clear (based on the attendance and passionate public comments) that the community’s interest in further discussion, learning and input would be required in order to fulfill the duty that the Mayor and Council were elected to execute. However, there was a report in the WMBF website last week that (if you read between the lines) clearly shows the City has pretty much made up its mind to not only annex the eight acres, but to zone them as R6 as the current owner and developer wants. A private meeting was held where some say the Council wondered out loud what would happen if the R6 zoning was changed to R10 or maybe a compromise could be reached and it could be made at least R8. (the main differences are fewer but larger homes instead of smaller rental properties – see the city website for details on zoning.) At the Council meeting the city management team claimed to not have any definitive ideas to what the Evans company really wanted to do with the new development, based on what I read in the article, it seems to me that the City planning commission has a very clear view that the intention of the property owner is to build small, closely spaced rental units. If Council was trying to negotiate on behalf of their citizens with the best of intentions, then good for them, but how far are they willing to go and why then did the planner share what may turn out to be conflicting information with local TV?
What is in it for the City? What is in it for the neighborhood? What is in it for Mr. Evans? Ms. Rock is quick to point out that the City may benefit from a larger tax base and that Mr. Evans has “offered” to build the connecting road and sewer line himself “for our benefit.” My next questions are: Would Mr. Evans still be willing to do so if the area was zoned R10? Why was the meeting between Council and Mr. Evans “private”? Why did the Evans’ leave the room once the public was let in?
I am not accusing any person, company or government official or body of foul play, but this situation, once again takes on (at a minimum) the appearance of:
1. Limited involvement and consideration for and by the surrounding property owners.
2. More influence on government by the developer than the citizens at large.
3. Decisions being made behind closed doors and then a show being put on for the public’s consumption.
4. Using “fear” (as mentioned in my article last week.) When challenged, the city presented an argument that if we don’t annex the land we lose control over it and that our codes are tougher than the county. Well, if that is the case and the codes are easier in the county, why would Evans not build now instead of waiting for city annexation?
In addition, the offices that the Mayor and Council hold may be held in a small town, but that doesn’t mean that you do not have an obligation to perform your duties in a professional manner. This includes following the Roberts Rules of Order at ALL times, respecting and being considerate of each other and your electorate and being as transparent as possible. There are no State Secrets in Darlington, so why not be frightfully open and public about what you are thinking and doing? Incidentally, while the Mayor believes that she can impose a two-minute speaking limit at her whimsy, there is a city statute that allows citizens five minutes. Her honor also seems to use the gavel more when the person speaking isn’t saying what she wishes to hear. The gavel should be used sparingly and consistently from speaker to speaker.
Lastly, when I spoke before Council on two recent occasions, I was ignored and treated dismissively by the Mayor. She made no attempt to reach out to me in public or private to discuss my concerns. Even if she felt that she had better things to do or that she was above explaining herself to me (which she actually said after I first spoke), her position demands that she is accountable to me and to every other person in this City. I will not allow such disregard for me as a person, a citizen and a voter (who by the way voted for her in the run-off election – more on that another time) to go unnoticed or for her to remain unaccountable.
I recently asked if there was a way to remove an acting Mayor and the answer was that it would take involvement by the State executive, so in short, that would be unlikely. Well, there is another election in her future and she’s already lost my vote, how many more votes can she afford to lose in the meantime?