Joe Riley has been mayor of Charleston for a long time and, for the most part, he has done a great job. No one has expressed a clearer vision for Charleston and the Lowcountry than our eight-term major-domo.

I supported Riley when he ran for the Democratic gubernatorial nomination in 1994, and I joined him and hundreds of others on the 2000 march from Charleston to Columbia to call for bringing the Confederate flag down from the Statehouse dome.

I still think Joe’s vision is pure, but his methods have come under serious question. He has begun to demonstrate the kind of arrogance of one who never has to explain or apologize, and his bare-knuckle tactics recently earned him some of the worst press of his long City Hall tenure.

For years, Riley has fought to stop James Island from municipal incorporation, pointing out quite rightly that the Lowcountry is already riven with too much localism, too many competing counties, municipalities, and public service districts. At a time when new residents are pouring into the region and thousands of new houses are going up each year, we need unified government to manage growth. Toward that end, the mayor went to court and had two previous incorporation attempts by James Island voters invalidated. In June, those voters went to the polls and voted a third time to incorporate — this time by a 3-to-1 margin.

Opposing the latest municipal incorporation effort was a group called the No New Town Taskforce, a rather mysterious ad hoc organization which incorporated last spring and raised $23,000 within days. The day after the group formed, according to The Post and Courier, the Taskforce was writing checks to media and consulting companies in Maryland and Michigan and running a surprisingly sophisticated campaign. It all looked very suspicious to James Island residents, and now we know the truth, thanks to a nice piece of investigation by the P&C.

It seems that our very own Joe Riley was pulling the strings behind the No New Town Taskforce. The Taskforce was bankrolled by several local developers and wheeler-dealers, who happen to also have business relationships with the mayor, the city, or both. The P&C spotlighted five companies, four of whom wrote checks for $5,000 each; the fifth kicked in a paltry $3,000.

That fifth company was Dolphin Architects and Builders, which is working with a Colorado company to develop the city-owned Concord Park property, a.k.a. Ansonborough Field. Dolphin is awaiting final approval of a contract with the city.

Also in the game for $5,000 are The Beach Co., a real estate developer with contractual relationships with the city; Clement, Crawford & Thornhill, a developer with extensive holdings on the East Side, according to the P&C, and which is working with the city on plans to redevelop the upper Peninsula; local restaurateur and real estate investor Hank Holliday; and NOC LLC, a North Charleston corporation, whose registered agent is Michael O’Shaughnessy, chairman of Prudential Carolina Real Estate, whose signs can be seen all over town.

Riley admitted to the P&C, “I made some calls, I did. The committee asked for some fundraising help and I agreed to do that.”

His phone calls raised $23,000 of the $26,000 the No New Town Taskforce spent on their campaign.

What Riley did — calling in corporate and personal IOUs to fight James Island incorporation — is probably not illegal, but it is highly unethical. It’s very close to what Washington superlobbyist Jack Abramoff did on a much larger scale; i.e., surreptitiously directing money from a client Indian gambling group to various associates, who then conducted a “morally inspired” lobbying campaign against rival Indian gambling interests.

There will probably be no grand jury investigation into the mayor’s shenanigans, but one thing his behavior should do is make voters take a serious look at our perennial leader and ask: Has he been there too long? Has he become so ensconced in the boardrooms and halls of power that he represents a threat to the democratic process in the area?

In light of this cynical and highly partisan age, these questions may seem naïve, but they are a measure of how corporate money and media have changed our political culture since the idealistic young Joe Riley was first elected 31 years ago. And to ask these questions is to beg another question: Who will replace him? Riley has done a masterful job of keeping his cards close to his chest and keeping potential successors at arm’s length. In other words, he is keeping us as much in the dark about our future leadership as he is about his lobbying practices.

Whatever he does, Charleston voters have plenty to think about until municipal elections next year.

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