District 2 will have a new voice on Charleston City Council next year. Councilwoman Deborah Morinelli has been absent from council meetings since her DUI arrest earlier this year. She is not running for reelection.
“We’ve been essentially without representation since May,” says candidate Stephen Ziker, noting whoever wins will have to hit the ground running and gauge the needs of the district.
When issues come up, Rodney Williams says he’ll seek out input from residents.
“I’ll listen to what the people want and take that to the city,” Williams says. “I will not vote on an issue unless I know what West Ashley wants.”
Blake Hallman, who led the effort to preserve Morris Island, says more weight should have been given to what the community wanted for the popular historic site. He says that case is symptomatic of broader concerns about public involvement.
“I’d like to make sure that the City of Charleston is responsive with clearly defined actions,” Hallman says, noting that involves addressing citizen issues and explaining when you can’t give citizens what they want.
It’s Hallman’s more than five-year effort to preserve Morris Island that he says sets him apart from the other candidates.
“It took strong leadership, a fair dose of diplomacy, and a vision and determination to follow that goal to fruition,” he says. “I worked with disparate groups, brought them together, focused on a goal, and came to a consensus.”
Williams points to his experience working with Sea Island Habitat for Humanity as an asset in turning the recession around, engaging businesses and private individuals for aid to build homes at reduced costs.
“We need to bring people in to strengthen the economy,” he says.
A key to the turnaround, particularly in West Ashley, is redeveloping vacant strip malls.
Williams says the sites are indicative of a “retail infrastructure deficiency.” Federal stimulus money could lure new business to these storefronts, with councilmen serving as ambassadors.
Ziker is concerned about the crime element encouraged by these vacant properties.
“There’s a lot of strange goings-on after the stores have closed,” he says.
First, the city has to make sure there isn’t a disincentive for developers that’s keeping them from filling their property, Ziker says. Then, council members should weigh whether additional aid is necessary to encourage tenants or developers.
Hallman says a councilman can serve as an “open-minded facilitator,” offering ideas for new business, like short-term rent assistance for entrepreneurs. The city should also coordinate with regional and state development officials to catch the big fish like Boeing, which is considering expansion in North Charleston.
“We should play an upfront role in bringing in large business, regardless of where it locates within the region,” Hallman says. “What’s good for the Lowcountry is good for Charleston.”
Growth in the district is a major concern each candidate is hearing from residents, and traffic leads those complaints.
Highway 61 widening is a focus of the complaints, Ziker says.
“It’s a big issue in District 10, it’s an even bigger issue in District 2,” he says. The real problem is commuting hours and, it’s made worse during the school year. “People get stuck, and they can’t get out of their neighborhood.”
The new councilman will have to monitor District 10 development, Ziker says, because those cars will be heading out on District 2 roads.
The city isn’t responsible for improving the roads, but Williams says city concerns should be voiced early and often.
“They can wait as long as they want to,” he says. “But it’s going to cost us, and they need to know that.”
And the city will have to remain vigilant on projects — ensuring development brings more than new neighbors. It should also bring opportunities for existing residents like shopping and recreation in new city centers that don’t require a long drive downtown.
“Charleston is the key to this region. However, a lot of people would stay in their neighborhood if they had the opportunity to eat dinner and shop and conduct business where they live,” Hallman says.
Connecting the various neighborhoods in the sprawling district will also be a priority for the candidates.
“We’re spread out so far and so thin,” Williams says. “People want more bike paths and more walking paths.”
And those coordination efforts will require work with Charleston and Dorchester counties as development expands beyond the municipal boundary, Hallman says.
“The city is focusing on smart growth in its parameters,” he says. “But that makes no difference if we’re not planning for the entire picture and working in coordination.”
Hallman is also concerned about fully-equipped first responders and monitoring the city’s budget for wasteful spending. That includes a close eye on the short-term state and federal grants that require long-term commitments from the city.
“There are always ways to make the process more efficient,” he says. “That’s the benefit of multiple eyes, experienced eyes helping to play a role in oversight.”
Williams says he’ll also focus on quality of life issues, getting the city more involved in improving schools and ensuring there are more recreation opportunities within the district, suggesting the walking path on the Ravenel Bridge is a good example.
“When you look at all this planned development, it’s okay to have a park, but you have to emphasize recreation and fitness,” he says.
The council needs new leadership, Ziker says. Someone who will find solutions on contentious issues that pit suburban needs versus urban concerns.
“We need to find more consensus and look out for the good of the city,” he says. “We need to prevent the feeling of us versus them.”
And it will take more involvement from all involved.
“Some council members just sit there if it doesn’t impact their district,” he says.
For more information on Rodney Williams, visit rodneywilliamsdistrict2.com
For more information on Blake Hallman, click on the pdf file below.