The forest of campaign signs has been cleared from the causeway leading out to Folly Beach. Tempers have cooled. Life has returned to the closest thing to normal that you are likely to find at the Edge of America.
The funky little beach town, famous for its laid-back ways, its beer-on-the-beach freedom, its hang-ten lifestyles, and the incomparable Bert’s Market, has had its boardshorts all in a twist over recent municipal elections.
Most resort towns experience a tension between those who want to promote tourism and squeeze every dollar out of the season and the residents who want to preserve some of the quiet and beauty that drew them there long before. Folly Beach is no different.
Residents complain about the noise, the traffic, the litter, the drunks wandering through their neighborhoods and urinating in their yards. There have been fatal car crashes on once-quiet residential streets, and it can take nearly an hour to drive the 10-mile stretch from Folly Beach to downtown Charleston on a summer weekend.
But the tension between tourism and residents has been compounded on Folly by a mayor who many say had run off the rails. Carl Beckmann was elected burgomaster of the beach four years ago, promising clean government after the embarrassing administration and personal behavior of former Mayor Vernon Knox. What Folly Beach got was a retired soldier who apparently thought he could run City Hall the way George Patton ran the Third Army. In the process, critics say, he surrendered the town to tourism interests, failed to enforce laws aimed at regulating public behavior, and allowed developers to violate zoning laws against condo construction.
As the chief executive in a “strong-mayor” municipality, he was able to control the agenda to thwart the will of the council, his critics said. Things came to a head in February when it was revealed that Beckmann had gone to Charleston County Parks and Recreation Commission to offer a piece of prime beach real estate for a county park. He did this without consulting the council or negotiating any mitigation for property taxes that the town would lose.
The town council and public learned about the deal when they read about it in The Post and Courier. “It was outrageous the way he did that,” said Dave Stormer, a council member and long-time Beckmann critic. “There has been a very dysfunctional council and what I perceive as a leadership problem and a communications problem.”
Part of that communication problem was a lack of formal notice of council meetings and committee meetings. Under Beckmann’s command, City Hall refused to post such meetings online or in local newspapers. The only notice was a printed sheet of paper taped to the front door of City Hall, and the only way people could see it was to go there and read it for themselves. This was an inconvenience to citizens and journalists alike.
One of those journalists was Ali Akhyari, until recently the editor of the weekly Folly Current newspaper and now a City Paper columnist. He told me he asked the town clerk to notify him of any meetings, and in a year and a half at the paper, he was never once alerted. He had to go down to City Hall and read it for himself.
In January, Akhyari arranged to be placed on the council agenda, an opportunity he planned to use to talk about government transparency and the state’s Freedom of Information Act. He did not get the chance. Akhyari was taken off the agenda, and he left the paper soon after.
Beckmann had two opponents going into last week’s election: Town council members Eddie Ellis and Tim Goodwin. The mayor was talking loud and proud that he expected to win re-election.
On Friday, four days before the election, Councilman Stormer mailed out a two-page flyer to the 2,000 registered voters of Folly Beach. It enumerated 10 actions that Stormer considered high-handed and unilateral, including the sale of town property to CCPRC. Beckmann cobbled together a hasty, half-baked response, which landed in voters’ mailboxes the day before the election.
The next day those voters sent Beckmann packing, giving him a third-place finish and avoiding a runoff by electing Goodwin with 56 percent of the vote. In the cheers and excitement of the moment, Goodwin promised supporters and media a new day of openness and better communication at City Hall.
Was this all anger at Carl Beckmann, or part of the national throw-the-bums-out mood, or part of the whimsy and vapors of Folly Beach? Whatever happened last week, it’s good to know that democracy still rules at the Edge of America.
See Will Moredock’s blog here.