[image-1]Although the question of flooding was not specifically posed to the five Charleston City Council candidates running for West Ashley’s districts 2 and 10, the topic was never far from discussion during Wednesday’s candidate forum.
Sponsored by the League of Women Voters, the West Ashley-James Island Business Association, the American Association of University Women, and the West Of newspaper, the forum took place the same day that the city announced that more than $7.78 million in grant funds will be used to purchase and demolish 36 flood-prone homes in West Ashley, including 32 properties in the Bridge Point Townhome Community.
As a part of FEMA’s hazard mitigation grant program, the federal government will contribute more than $5.83 million to the effort, with a 25 percent match of $1.9 million coming from the city. According to the city, the purchased properties will be returned to greenspace in perpetuity once the existing structures are demolished.
“This is good news for affected residents, and a major step forward for our larger Church Creek Drainage Basin strategy,” said Mayor John Tecklenburg in a public statement. “I would like to thank everyone who worked so hard to get this job done, including Governor Henry McMaster, U.S. Senators Lindsay Graham and Tim Scott, U.S. Representatives Mark Sanford and Jim Clyburn, S.C. Sen. Sandy Senn, and S.C. Rep. Lin Bennett, as well as city staff and members of our city council.”
Meeting in the cafeteria at West Ashley High School, the candidates for City Council districts 2 and 10 traded jabs over flooding, traffic, and other issues related to the development of the area. In the race for District 2, incumbent Councilman Rodney Williams squares off against challenger Kevin Shealy.
Shealy opened up the forum by taking an assertive tone to declare “I am West Ashley,” which would prove to be his regular refrain throughout the evening. Shealy told the crowd he would be the “ethical person we need” on City Council, vowing to address flooding and traffic in West Ashley.
Last December, Williams was cleared of any wrongdoing by the state Ethics Commission after questions were raised about a meeting he had helped arrange between a construction company and the city’s capital projects staff. Williams later self-reported the incident to the Ethics Commission.
Shealy later grilled Williams on accepting campaign contributions from donors outside of his district. Williams said that 30-35 percent of his total campaign donations were from contributors inside District 2, but said he was grateful for all the support he has received.
Running for his second term on City Council, Williams told the audience that livability and quality of life remain his priority when voting on city matters. Williams remained steadfast in his support of development moratoriums, saying he had supported every such effort to come before City Council. Acknowledging that moratoriums were not the sole solution to growth concerns, Williams said moratoriums provide an important opportunity for officials to take a step back and analyze the problems at hand, adding that City Council unwillingness to pass a proposed moratorium on new hotel development was a mistake.
While Shealy repeatedly stated that West Ashley had “taken a backseat” to downtown for too long, Williams said, “We don’t have to punish downtown to enhance West Ashley. They enhance each other.”
Regarding matters connecting West Ashley and the peninsula, Shealy was outspoken against the Legare Bridge bike lane conversion plan that has long been batted around by city and county officials. Asked about public transportation improvements, Shealy argued for more consistent bus schedules, while Williams suggested a more comprehensive look at multimodal transportation across the city.
Shealy closed out the evening by again promising ethical leadership and repeating “I am West Ashley.” Williams took the opportunity during his closing statements to thank voters, while voicing his disappointment in the fellow members of City Council who have backed his opponent, saying that efforts have been made to destroy his reputation.
Uniting all five candidates appearing at the forum was a call for the completion on I-526. Vying for the District 10 seat are Harry Joseph Griffin, Summer Massey, and incumbent Dean Riegel. Riegel has recently faced pressure after it was revealed that he had been living outside of his West Ashley district. Although the councilman has said he is currently leasing a property within District 10, his opponents did not miss the opportunity to subtly remind voters of the residency violation.
Stepping from behind the microphone, Massey delivered a poised opening statement, saying that she lives in the area and had not seen improvements promised to West Ashley. Working for a civil engineering firm to acquire rights-of-way, Massey touted her connections with state and local agencies, and called for a number of changes in how the city develops transportation projects.
According to Massey, pedestrian facilities should be a component of infrastructure projects from the beginning, rather than attempting to retrofit projects down the line. Both she and Riegel spoke of the benefits of the bus rapid transit line that is planned to run from Summerville into the peninsula, but Massey was the only candidate to touch on plans for the line that would include additional transit routes that branch off of the BRT line’s main spine. Massey wants to ensure that one of those routes serves the residents of West Ashley.
Griffin comments on transportation included synching the traffic lights along Bees Ferry Road, and creating more self-sufficient developments within West Ashley so that residents aren’t forced to get in their cars and wade through traffic to commute to work and businesses.
Fielding a question on moratoriums and development from the audience, Massey was quick and to the point. In her opinion, moratoriums would not be necessary if the area was being developed responsibly, saying she’s witnessed unbridled growth on a local level. Griffin also took a hard stance against a reliance on moratoriums to manage development, saying, “Moratoriums do not represent stable growth.”
At 22, Griffin is the youngest candidate in this year’s City Council race. He hopes that his campaign will serve to inspire more young residents to get involved in local politics. Perhaps drawing attention to the youth of his two opponents, Riegel credited his experience and connections with state and federal officials as playing a part in the federal grant funding that will be used to purchase West Ashley homes plagued by flooding.
Massey questions just how influential Riegel was in pushing forward with the FEMA funding, while Griffin suggested that City Council members didn’t act soon enough to address flooding in West Ashley.
“How are we going to let homes flood three, four, fives times before taking action?” Griffin asked, drawing offense from Riegel but applause from the crowd.
All five candidates will appear on the ballot for the Nov. 7 election.