When we say it’ll be tough for any of his three challengers to beat Mayor Joe Riley come Nov. 6, what we mean to say is, “Thanks for playing.” When William Dudley Gregorie, Riley’s most active challenger, told us that he had done more for Charleston than the other candidates, he didn’t waste a breath before saying, “Except the mayor.”
Whether it’s the fight over zoning for Charleston Place or the fight to save Charleston after Hurricane Hugo, Riley’s been right in the middle of Charleston’s most important moments. Some may argue that the man just can’t get enough of the mayor’s chair, but it’s probably a more important point that Riley faces competition every four years, and the races tend to provide lots of campaigning, but little suspense.
If there’s anything that makes this year different, it’s the Sofa Super Store fire on June 18. After the deaths of nine firefighters, the city’s fire department mourned for a week and has since been beaten over the head with photos at the scene indicating serious (state officials claim “willful”) mistakes. Those errors have led to a wholesale review of the department that included more than 200 recommended changes, some so pressing the independent team released those findings back in August because of immediate safety concerns.
Riley touts the city’s Class 1 fire insurance rating (thanks, in large part, to water supply and station locations) and says the city was meeting minimum state standards, but is now ready to take it to the next level.
“Our fire department’s record of making the city safe, putting out fires, and rescuing people has been remarkable,” he says. “What (the independent review) has given us is a blueprint to excel. It shouldn’t be read as criticism, but as a city asking for recommendations to be even better.”
Riley’s critics, including his opponents and foils on the City Council, have called for Fire Chief Rusty Thomas’ removal, but Riley has stood by his man, much as he has with other embattled department heads. He says people are looking for a scapegoat and Thomas deserves better than that.
“He’s a leader and he’s experienced and he’s a fine person,” Riley says. “He’s on the job, he knows his people, he inspires them — and he’s committed to the changes that need to be made.”
Having a world-class fire department would only add to Riley’s seemingly unending push to make Charleston a national model for everything (no doubt hoping to one day become the national model of national models). Riley is already the frequent go-to guy for urban design, redevelopment, and hurricane response. In discussing the growing wheeze of the housing bubble, Riley says he’s confident that major redevelopment projects in the Neck, Marion Square, the old path of the Cooper River Bridge, and elsewhere on the peninsula will outlast the leaky market.
“We want each one of those to be a national model,” he says. “We want people to come and learn and say, ‘This is how they do it in Charleston.'”
The mayor is also focusing on education.
“I know that schools and public education is not a city government responsibility, but the education of our children is the most important job that a community does,” he says.
Riley notes the city’s First Day Festival for school children has been well received, and he’s chairing the National League of Cities’s Youth, Education, and Families program, hoping to bring the nation’s best practices to bear. The city is already involved with book clubs and mentor programs and it’s developing a youth master plan. Riley says he’s also working with the school district to turn schools into community learning centers.
“We’re looking to transform schools not just with after-school programs, but to be a neighborhood resource,” he says.
Another important job for the city is public safety, and Riley couldn’t get much better news than a recent progress report from new Police Chief Greg Mullen. After a troubling 2006 when violent crime rates hit all-time highs, Riley happily ticks off the successes the department has seen in the first nine months of 2007.
“There’s 45 percent more officers out on patrol. The homicide rate is down by 39 percent. Drug arrests are up 60 percent,” he says. The city is also using new technology for analyzing crime patterns and getting more serious criminals behind bars, Riley says.
Other important tasks for the city over the next four years include fostering the city’s 100 neighborhood councils, which Riley refers to as the first line of defense in attending to residents’ daily concerns. The mayor is also looking to continue with the city’s drainage improvements ($37 million has already been spent) and expanding the digital corridor (that has grown over the last four years from 18 to 80 members). More pedestrian and bike trails and new parks are also on the drawing board, and there’s a regional land use plan in development at the Berkeley-Charleston-Dorcester Council of Governments, which Riley chairs (surprise).
“It’s so we can be more alert and smarter as a region in shaping and managing our growth so that we don’t allow it to overwhelm us,” he says.
Though Riley is nearing retirement age, he’s in no mood to predict the end of his tenure leading the city.
“This job requires you to get to work early and work hard and long hours and love the work,” he says. “I’m energetic. There are some jobs where there’s a power of seniority where you can ease up because you’ve got more power. My authority is something I have to earn every day. I have 1,500 city employees, and I have to show them an example of hard work and energy every day.”