In the blurry-eyed third hour of a recent City Council meeting, Councilman Tim Mallard and Mayor Joe Riley were playing a tough game in the region’s classiest political ballpark: Charleston City Hall.
Mallard came to bat with three ordinances.
The first pitch, adding six members to one of the city’s design review boards, was met with a note from the city attorney that it would be against state statute. Mallard stood alone and was defeated.
The second pitch, limiting council members to three four-year terms, was met with another note from the city attorney that state law wouldn’t allow it. The council again voted against Mallard.
By the third pitch, an effort to reduce late fees for business licenses, the mayor suggested in jest that he had another legal opinion. But, in all seriousness, he had the city’s chief financial officer, Steve Bedard, give a bleak assessment that Charleston would lose more than $200,000 under Mallard’s proposal. It wasn’t a shutout, but the councilman lost on a voice vote.
Mallard was elected to the council in November 2007, unseating Anne Francis Bleecker, the council’s last sitting attorney and a strong supporter of the mayor.
Promising to be a problem solver railing against the city’s bloated bureaucracy, Mallard said at the time, “I will be a strong voice, not just an echo.”
It was an indication that we were in for an exciting nine innings, and neither Mallard nor Riley has disappointed.
Last summer, the mayor tried to squash a last-minute council committee meeting on the fire department and the response to the 2007 Sofa Super Store fire. Riley came in with an opinion from city attorneys that the meeting was illegal because of the state’s public notification requirements. The emotional face-off ended quickly, but Mallard introduced a measure weeks later that would allow the council to hire its own attorney.
The city’s attorneys work at the discretion of the mayor, and Mallard questioned their objectivity when issues come up where the council was at odds with the mayor, like the committee meeting.
Riley argued that the city legal staff wasn’t there to tell you what you want to hear.
“They give you their honest appraisal,” he said. “And it may not be what you want to hear. And it may not be what I want to hear.”
The council sided with the mayor.
This April, Riley called for the council to reiterate its support for an urban growth boundary on Johns Island, a regional agreement to limit development on the once-rural island. Mallard had argued in front of the Charleston County Planning Commission that the city’s support of the boundary was flawed and would ruin the island.
The mayor said he wanted to avoid misconceptions that Mallard was speaking for the city, and Riley provided copies of the councilman’s comments to the rest of the council. Mallard said it was proof that the entire effort was meant to embarrass him.
Mallard played a little politics himself, again questioning the importance of the boundary line.
“In the last 30 to 40 days, the line has become some sacred holy grail,” he says. “Maybe it depends on who the developer is.”
Individual council members supported Mallard’s right to say what he wants to, but the council overwhelmingly supported the mayor’s resolution.
The confrontation rose last week before the council even got to Mallard’s three issues. In a discussion over the city’s proposed energy efficiency program, the councilman pressed Riley for details about the plan. Mallard wanted more information about future fundraising efforts, but Riley said it was too early to get into specifics.
“Thank you for the dialogue, but you didn’t answer my question,” Mallard told the mayor at one point in the exchange.
Later, an exasperated Riley told Mallard that it would be easy to understand if Mallard “would be quiet for a minute” and let him explain it.
As new business, Mallard’s proposals were the last three items on an eight-page agenda. The Commercial Corridor Design Review Board, which reviews architectural requests along the city’s most popular roadways, is currently made up of seven members appointed by the council based on recommendations of council members and the mayor. Mallard wanted each of the 12 council members and the mayor to get one pick, but state law limits membership on these boards to 10. The council voted down the measure, with Mallard offering what’s almost become a trademark sound — a solitary, exasperated, “Aigh!”
The term-limit proposal got a little more action, which was surprising considering everyone had started looking at their watches a half-hour earlier.
Citing the hurdles in challenging an incumbent, particularly the fundraising disparity, Mallard said the bill was an effort to give people with little means a better chance to run.
Again, the city lawyers said it would be illegal, noting that a municipality can’t prevent a particular legal voter from running.
“It sounds like these are issues Councilman Mallard will have to go to the state for,” said Councilman Gary White.
Finally, Mallard’s third effort, to give business owners an extra month to pay city license fees and capping late fees at 25 percent, as opposed to the city’s existing 55 percent, hit a snag because of the tight budget.
Reducing the fee would mean cutting the city’s budget some $200,000, said CFO Bedard.
In the end, Mallard says he’s wants to bring new business to Charleston. And Mallard seems to see this as an us vs. him issue.
“If it’s not the administration’s idea, it’s a bad idea,” he says. “One man makes the decisions, and the city council, except for a few exceptions, is simply just potted plants.”
It would be easy to point to Mayor Riley as the foil to Mallard’s many efforts, but things would go a lot easier for the councilman if he had six like minds on the council.
In the debate over an independent attorney last year, Councilwoman Deborah Morinelli said there has been no animosity between the council and the city’s legal staff.
“There is none. If there is, it’s you (Mallard) who created it,” she said.
Councilman Larry Shirley, who has lost fights on the council over bar closings and smoking bans, told Mallard that he understood his frustration but that it was misplaced.
“I lost those fights, not because I didn’t have a good attorney, but because I didn’t have the votes on council,” Shirley said.
November elections will bring at least two new members to the council (both Morinelli and Shirley are leaving). As for 2011, when both Mallard and Riley will be up for reelection, the councilman frankly says he’s focused right now on his district.
“I’m not a potted plant,” he says.