A headline from last week’s Post and Courier was notable for what it said about Charleston’s evolving leadership and the direction the city seems to be heading on issues of growth. It read: “Charleston City Council Sees No Need to Change Where Hotels Can Go Downtown.” The story was notable not because of what it said about hotels, but who it was that was saying it. Charleston’s City Council has found its voice in the post-Riley era, and has taken several steps to embrace its new authority after years in a more complimentary role under a popular, multi-term incumbent. Its definitive stance on the proposed hotel moratorium is only the most visible example of council’s expanded clout, particularly on issues of growth and development.
During former Mayor Joseph P. Riley’s extraordinary tenure, he accumulated an unrivaled influence and authority due to the power of his incumbency. Because Mayor Riley often won re-election with sizable margins, he could rely on broad public support to pursue whatever items were on his agenda. Brian Hicks’ insightful recent biography on former Mayor Riley outlines in specific detail how Riley was able to galvanize City Council support for very difficult projects on his agenda. Council members on the mayor’s side enjoyed Riley’s support, particularly at re-election time, while Riley opponents faced a far tougher road. Because Mayor John Tecklenburg has not yet had the opportunity to engender this type of support or influence during his short time in office, City Council members have tended to be much more independent and assertive in their votes. Whereas Riley was almost always virtually guaranteed a council majority to support his most important initiatives, the new mayor does not yet enjoy that luxury.
Along those lines, the recent votes with regard to the power of the city Planning Commission are illustrative. The members of the Planning Commission are ultimately approved by City Council, but they are appointed by the mayor. If it takes an extraordinarily high number of votes for City Council to override a recommendation of the Planning Commission, this in effect enhances the power of the mayor, who presumably would appoint commission members that were in line with his priorities. The City Council’s recent move to lower the threshold at which Planning Commission recommendations can be overridden automatically increases the power of council, relative to the mayor, on Planning Commission issues. A stronger Planning Commission will soon be a relic of the Riley era, as the council reclaims some of the authority the former mayor long wielded.
Mayor Riley ushered in 2 a.m. bar closings over the strenuous objections of many downtown bar owners and pushed the ordinance for “no indoor smoking” at bars and restaurants. Time after time, Mayor Riley was able to garner the votes of council, many times despite vocal opposition to his initiatives. The challenge for the new mayor, as it would have been for anyone following in Riley’s footsteps, is being able to craft an agenda that garners support of council or one that can be passed over council’s initial objections. At this early stage in the new administration, it’s not clear what that agenda is, or that it would supplant the will of council, even if it were more readily defined.
To the extent that the agenda began with a strong stance against new hotel construction on the peninsula, City Council has definitively put that notion to rest. It may take a while to determine what the city’s direction will be on development as a whole in the post-Riley era, but City Council has most definitely become more assertive in setting the municipal agenda on growth and development in the meantime. What that means as changes on the peninsula continue will be very interesting to see.