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Citizens on both sides of ‘Y’ issue take to the Web

Posted: January 10, 2012 5:18 p.m.
Updated: January 11, 2012 5:00 a.m.

A new website on one side, a new Facebook page and accompanying blog on the other are reframing the debate about a proposed city of Camden-built, possibly YMCA of Columbia-run sports complex.

During the past 10 days, those supporting the city’s efforts to build the complex created a website to speak out on why they think the project is a good idea. Meanwhile, a group dedicated to an effort to have voters decide on the project have launched a new Facebook page and blog to promote a new petition to have a binding referendum placed before voters.

Speaking with the authors of both new sets of Web offerings revealed two things in common: a commitment to educating the public on the issue and recruiting more voters to their causes.

The ‘new kids’ on the Web

For most of 2011, it appeared as though the only people speaking out about the proposed sports complex were those either opposed to the project itself or upset about how city council was handling the project. Late in the year, however, what seemed to be a small group of people began appearing at council meeting expressing their support.

Those supporters have now come together as Camden for the Y (CFTY) and have created a website to voice and explain their support, and recruit new members.

“It came together about a week ago and we had a meeting of around 25 folks,” Austin Jenkins, the website’s author, said. “It’s a mechanism for supporters of the Y. We think there’s broad support, and we’ve thought that for a while. Until now, there just hadn’t been a lot of organization. I think a lot of people would be surprised at (the level of) support. The opposition has been very vocal; it hasn’t been as easy for people (who support the complex) to speak up.”

Jenkins said the group is larger than the 25 who attended that first meeting, but said he couldn’t hazard a guess as to how many people are actively supporting the city’s efforts to build the complex.

“There’s many more supporters than 25 -- the others just couldn’t attend for various reasons. I’ve talked to my friends and many of them are in support of this,” he said.

Part of the CFTY’s website is devoted to “stories” -- testimonials by a baker’s dozen of supporters, including Jenkins and his wife, Karin, who have both spoken at council meetings. Others who have spoken at meetings and have posted their support include Brenden Hinton, Rodney Dais and Susan Hagins White. The remainder are by Andrew Pope, Betsy Sanders Long, Dan Mackey, Denise Schnese, Greg Youghans, Loretta Kennington, Pat Wylie and one-time Kershaw County Council chairman candidate Stephen Kelly III.

Another part of the website explains the “Reasons For This,” a long list of items explaining the group’s position. The list leads off with “Our Children and Community Need a Sports Facility.”

“Rhame Arena is well past its prime. It has been fifteen years since the City invested dollars in the Arena. The facility cannot even be used in the summer due to lack of air conditioning,” the CFTY states. “Our children are playing ball in worn out places. It is time to give our children and community the facility they deserve.”

Other reasons include “This Will Build Community Health,” “We Want Our Youth to Belong to Something Healthy,” “The YMCA is a Perfect Partner” and “This Will Offer Something That Does not Exist in Camden.” These are just some of the two dozen reasons the group has put on the website. The page ends with a look at the city’s 2011 local source revenues and how they were expended.

“The website shows why we support this effort, it shares the stories of the people who support it. It’s a place where their voices can be heard,” Jenkins said.

Jenkins devotes one page of the website to “Thoughts on the Petition” the CRRC is circulating.

“I got a lot of questions about it,” he said. “So, I started looking into it and I felt it was worthwhile to post it. We don’t have an official position. I haven’t asked the individual members about it.”

Yet, Jenkins’ final paragraphs open with the conclusion that it’s difficult to think the “charge for a referendum is decidedly neutral” as petitioners have often stated.

“(T)he reasons to either support it or not support it are evident. Therefore, there is little reason to lead a charge for a referendum unless you are against the plans the reasons for supporting the project. If you are ‘for’ the project, it makes much more sense to support the city in its current efforts,” Jenkins wrote.

“Unfortunately, the referendum will give you the opportunity to be either ‘for’ or ‘against’ the project, not in between,” referring to petitioners’ claims that they are only “for” a referendum to be held. “The choice between ‘yes’ or ‘no’ can be made right now for those willing to look into the facts surrounding this project. One has little reason to spend energy leading a charge for a referendum if your choice is ‘yes.’”

Jenkins ended his position on the petition by expressing his respect for petitioners and their hard work.

“(B)ut those who are asked to sign this new petition for a referendum need to seriously consider whether the call for this referendum is instead an effort to stop this project.”

Jenkins confirmed the CFTY has passed out fliers around Camden; he said those fliers both explain the group’s position and direct the public to the website. He said the group decided to do that because none of the members have the time to keep up with the management of a blog or Facebook page.

“The website is a place to centralize our message and to, hopefully, let it be a positive one,” Jenkins said.

He said he wasn’t sure if CFTY members would be at Tuesday’s meeting, but that there are plans to do so in the future.

“But there are other ways to spread the message,” Jenkins said, including letters to the editor, emails and their own Facebook pages or other social networks.

‘Let the people decide’

On the other side of the Web, so to speak, is the Camden Recreation Referendum Coalition (CRRC), with a Facebook page and blog, both maintained and authored by Tray Dunaway.

Dunaway said he started both the Facebook page and blog around the same time the CFTY website went live at the request of other CRRC members.

“The reasons I was selected is that I was the one who knew how to start a Facebook page and blog,” Dunaway said. “Other people will contribute to the blog, but we had to have some words on there. We couldn’t have a blank blog.”

Dunaway said one of the purposes of both online aspects of the CRRC is to encourage a dialogue that he hopes will be civil both on the Facebook page and blog.

“We just want this to be open as a public forum. We wanted a place where people could say something about this, then someone else could come and say ‘Yes, well, what about this?’ and then go back and forth,” he said.

But the main purpose of the CRRC presences is to let people know about a new petition to bring a referendum before Camden voters. Another petition for another referendum?

“The CRRC is a very narrowly focused group. The referendum is to establish for city council a binding referendum (on whether) voters want sports complex ‘Option 1’ or form a committee to explore an affordable, sustainable facility” Dunaway explained. “It’s different from the previous one because, from what I understand, that one was non-binding and this one is.”

CRRC member Paddy Bell, who helped promote the previous petition and another before that seeking to stop council from continuing the project, said the non-binding referendum petition is still in play.

“We’re waiting on council,” Bell said. “We have to give them a chance to acknowledge it in some way, and (City Attorney Charles) Cushman is still seeking a declaratory judgment.”

The CRRC presented the non-binding referendum to council in two parts. In November, petitioners submitted a worksheet validating the number of legal signatures by registered voters in the city of Camden. The Kershaw County Voter Registration Office conducted the validation, the worksheet signed by the office’s director, Rosalind Watson. The city rejected acting on the worksheet alone and requested that petitioners submit the actual sheets of signatures. They did so a month later.

Nearly 900 people signed the petition, but Watson’s office discounted 139 signatures for various reasons, bringing the valid number of signatures down to 758. For citizen initiatives, state law requires petitions be signed by at least 15 percent of registered voters in the affected municipality; 758 was 41 more than needed.

Even so, council voted 4-1 to send the petition to its own election commission -- another requirement of state law -- for validation. Camden Election Commission Chairman Bruce Little was scheduled to report its findings to council Tuesday night.

That 4-1 council vote also sent the petition on to a circuit court judge for a declaratory ruling on the petition’s language -- the “non-binding” characteristic to which Dunaway and Bell referred. There has been no word on whether a judge has issued a ruling.

“Clearly the rules have changed,” Bell said. “We always understood that (the non-binding one) was an advisory referendum. We’re determined to stay the course. There’s no sense in waiting, so we’re going forward. Based so far on the behavior we’ve seen of council, the advisory referendum is probably not going to be accepted, so we’re moving ahead with the new petition.”

The “Option 1” Dunaway mentioned is a reference to a plan offered by JHS Architecture Integrated Design estimated to cost between $5 million and $6.2 million. The plans call for a 44,000-square-foot facility including an 8,000-square-foot pool -- or at least its shell -- gymnasium with elevated walking track, exercise rooms, child care/play are, conference room, offices and two full-size soccer/athletic fields.

Dunaway emphasized that the CRRC’s efforts, both on- and off-line, are separate from another Facebook page and blog that are dedicated more broadly to issues of transparency and accountability from Camden City Hall. Janet and Herbert Farber started the Camden’s Open Mike Facebook page in summer 2011 after the city of Camden shut down its own Facebook page. Farber launched the Camden Open Mike Blog in December.

The Farbers each filed S.C. Freedom of Information Act requests with the city of Camden; Herbert Farber has said that he may file a lawsuit under an umbrella name of Camden Committee for Responsible Government.

Dunaway, a former surgeon, is a prolific blogger and public speaker who is also chairman of Historic Camden Foundation’s board of directors. He said said his postings on the CRRC’s Facebook page and blog are also separate from his personal blog and Historic Camden’s blog, which he also authors. Dunaway acknowledged that he has written about the sports complex controversy on the Historic Camden blog, but only inasmuch as the issues touch on Historic Camden matters.

“It has nothing to do with the CRRC blog,” Dunaway said of the Historic Camden blog, calling it a “challenge” to keep his medical, personal and Historic Camden “hats” separate.

(The C-I will have a full account of Tuesday’s Camden City Council meeting in Friday’s edition.)

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