After a late start to Tuesday night’s Charleston City Council meeting, council members and Mayor John Tecklenburg blitzed through the agenda, checking off a short list of hot-button topics along the way.
COVID-19 measures raise questions, spark debate
A second round of discussion requested by council member Caroline Parker regarding the mayor’s COVID measures, especially the mask ordinance and the procedure by which it was levied, amounted to little practical action. Parker said at the last meeting on March 8 she had requested an opinion from state Attorney General Alan Wilson on the topic, but on Tuesday, she said she hadn’t received a response.
However, council member Peter Shahid said that even if an opinion was received, it would be a moot point.
“The matter has been resolved, quite frankly,” he said. “The law of the case dealing with this mask ordinance and the mayor’s ordinance has been validated … the attorney general’s opinion does not trump a federal district judge’s order. That’s the end of the matter.”
Council member William Dudley Gregorie clarified that the root of the disagreement may be semantic in nature.
“We need to have a discussion about the difference between a policy and a law,” he said. “The Mayor has the responsibility to carry out either, as the executive branch. Sometimes we ask our counsel for their legal opinions when they are really policy decisions that can be made by this body.”
But Parker said the discussion should be focused not on the legality of the mandate, but on the process by which it was implemented — without a vote by council. Parker said council would benefit during future emergency situations like the COVID-19 pandemic to have a clarified procedure to follow.
“If you go back to the COVID-19 update, it’s all but disappeared — until it’s back. That’s why we need to talk about the process,” Parker said.
City’s racial equity map offers new insight on old longstanding challenges
The City of Charleston’s racial equity story map, an interactive website that creates a visual representation of racial inequities in the city that was introduced March 4, is already giving city leaders and racial justice advocates some new perspectives to work from.
With different layers to the map that show gentrification over time, wealth gaps and more, Diversity, Racial Reconciliation and Tolerance manager Amber Johnson said the data will serve as a launching pad and baseline for future equitable policy.
“It creates an opportunity to discuss the data and use the data to inform our decisions regarding racial equities that exist throughout the city,” she said during a presentation at Tuesday night’s council meeting. “In order for transformations to occur, an understanding of our racialized history is required.”
A key component of the map uses the rising cost of homes in different areas of the peninsula to show chronological gentrification of historically Black neighborhoods.
“This is not news to many people — that housing costs have an association with gentrification and displacement,” said Chloe Stuber, a city planner who helped get the project off the ground. “But this data shows us that cause and effect and also gives us some measures we can use to look into the future at where we can aim our strategies to prevent displacement and gentrification going forward.”
Housing costs are rising faster than incomes, a disparity far more severe for Black and brown communities, according to the presentation. So the decrease in rent-burdened households in neighborhoods with a high rate of change is more likely due to lower-income households being pushed out due to rising rents and more affluent residents moving in.
Property purchase for homeless hub scrapped after committee debate
City Council also approved the Ways and Means Committee’s decision to scrap a land deal for a property that was penned for use as homeless outreach services due the building’s prices and a messy ethics debate surrounding the mayor’s connection to the deal.
Though Tecklenburg abstained from the vote, saying a previous discussion about his son’s connection to the property owners was distracting, even if it didn’t go directly against state ethics laws. The new building would have replaced the city’s current homeless outreach hub, Meeting Street’s Navigation Center, which is on a monthly lease.
Council member Robert Mitchell, who represents the district where the office is located and has been involved in the planning process, said it was the best opportunity that has been brought to the table so far. But other council members said appraisals of the property — the first and second coming in at $1.3 million and $1.6 million respectively — were too high for where the property was located — a former crematorium in the neck nearly surrounded by a graveyard.
Council members Keith Waring, Boyd Gregg, Kevin Shealy, Gregorie, Mike Seekings, Shahid and Parker voted in favor of terminating the deal. Council members Mitchell, Jason Sakran, Karl Brady, Stephen Bowden and Ross Appel voted in favor of buying the property.