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Substantial differences

Posted: February 24, 2012 11:29 a.m.
Updated: February 27, 2012 5:00 a.m.

The newly proposed city council ordinance -- “Should the City of Camden continue with plans to construct a recreation facility and partner with a third party administer the facility?” --  is an unacceptable subversion of the ordinance submitted to City Council on Jan. 24, 2012, that was signed by 1,107 registered voters in the City of Camden.

Here’s what state law Section 5-17-30 says about “special election subsequent to council’s failure or refusal to act upon initiative petition in manner desired by electors.”

“If the council shall fail to pass an ordinance proposed by initiative petition or shall pass it in a form substantially different from that set forth in the petition therefor or if the council fail to repeal an ordinance for which a petition has been presented, the adoption of repeal of the ordinance concerned shall be submitted to the electors not less than thirty days nor more than one year from the date the council takes is final vote thereon.” The key phrase here, buried among legal mumbo-jumbo, is that council must not create a ballot question that is “substantially different” from what had been submitted.

The petitioned ordinance submitted Jan. 24 calls for a binding resolution. Council’s ordinance does not. City Manager Kevin Bronson was quoted in The State on Jan. 25, 2012, as stating the council’s ordinance would be non-binding. In other words, if the city council’s proposed ordinance results in a majority vote to stop building the proposed option 1 sports complex, the City Council is under no legal binding obligation to do so. Why bother voting if it ultimately means the City Council can do as it pleases despite a vote? This is a substantial difference from the Jan. 24 ordinance.

The petitioned ordinance submitted Jan. 24 calls for the establishment of “a tourism and recreational needs and funding study commission to propose alternative plans” for a recreational facility. The City Council’s ordinance does not. The city is asking for a simple yes-or-no, non-binding vote. This is nothing less than a petulant, childish response to the citizens of Camden that telegraphs to voters if you don’t support the proposed option 1 sports complex, you get nothing. The petitioned ordinance is not against a recreational facility, but it is against the currently proposed option 1 sports complex. The petition seeks to create “an affordable, sustainable, and fiscally responsible recreational facility for the citizens of Camden.” The City version does not allow this. This is a substantial difference from the Jan. 24 ordinance.

While there are other substantial differences between the four pages of legally drafted specific language of the petitioner’s Jan. 24 ordinance and the 23-word ordinance submitted by City Council, I’ll not enumerate them. I’ll rather point out the obvious reason the petitioners felt obliged to, (at the urging of Council to seek professional legal assistance in drafting an “ordinance” for a new petition at the petitioners personal expense), write such a lengthy document -- a public lack of trust in the leadership of the Camden City Council.

The characterization of City Council as “arrogant and unresponsive,” “lacking transparency,” “dictatorial” and “stonewalling” has grown over these past many months. The petitioned Jan. 24 ordinance describes what 1,107 registered voters want. Citizens not only want to stop current plans for the option 1 sports complex, but insist on detailing the process they would have City Council follow to find an alternative to the option 1 sports complex. A detailed process the petitioners feel would be difficult for the City Council to attempt to subvert, again. The Jan. 24 ordinance language describes how this would be achieved so a City Council that has lost public trust would be directed to manage decision making about a recreational facility in an open, transparent, honest, democratic fashion.

The Jan. 24 petition mandates a commission to consist of nine members appointed by the Mayor and City Council. The commission would include two people who own businesses which collectively remit at least 10 percent of hospitality taxes paid to the City of Camden -- the actual people who are collecting the hospitality tax that would be used for creation of a recreational facility. The people who are in a position to best evaluate who the “tourists” really are who are funding hospitality tax revenue. Appointees from legitimate established tourism venues in Camden would include representatives from the South Carolina Equine Park, Historic Camden, Fine Arts Center and the Downtown Camden Guild. Two appointees would be designated representatives by both the City and County. And finally, for a health perspective, an appointee designated by the KershawHealth Foundation. This diverse group, using collective intelligence, could explore partnership possibilities to maximize return on any investment and take advantage of synergistic opportunities.

The Jan. 24 petition ensures meetings would be open to the public and minutes would be kept as well as audio recordings of the all meeting. The commission would bear the responsibility of evaluating the City of Camden’s needs for tourism and recreation including capital recreational facilities, equipment and programs, (and costs for same), sources for funding for construction, operation and maintenance and opportunities for joint facilities with Kershaw County and other parties. Prior to making its final report and recommendations, the commission would conduct not less than two public hearings specifically to elicit public input and have open public dialogue. The kind of dialogue that has been decried as lacking for months in the “public forum” of city council meetings that require no response by Council. I ask City Council this: What is fundamentally wrong with these expectations? Is this not democracy? Why would the City Council refuse to consider these guidelines to ensure honest, open, transparent democracy?

It is my personal opinion that the petition addresses not simply the desire of 1,107 Camden voters to halt a profligate use of hospitality tax fund dollars, (originally sold to citizens as a way to promote “tourism” only to have “tourism” defined to suit the needs of a City Council unable to otherwise fund this pet project), but to address the very opaque process that allowed this fiasco to develop in the first place. Ultimately, unless the City Council wants to see more petitions on a routine basis, the process itself must be fixed. This sports complex debacle is merely a manifestation of failed leadership and decision-making that has transformed a democracy into an autocracy. The City’s proposed ordinance is a substantial difference from the Jan. 24 ordinance because changing the process goes way beyond a simple “yes” or “no” vote.

Public readings of proposed ordinances are to notify the public of not only a new ordinance itself but to elicit feedback to see if the ordinance should be modified according to public opinion. If not, why bother with a reading at all? If the City Council’s past history of unresponsiveness to public input is any predictor of the future, this ordinance will become still yet another pre-ordained decision.

But the 1,107 registered voters who signed their name and honor to the Jan. 24 petitioned ordinance will not go away. Despite numerous calls from the attorney who drafted the January 24 ordinance to the city attorney requesting dialogue concerning these substantial differences between the city’s proposed ordinance and the ordinance of Jan. 24, the city has remained unresponsive and unwilling to talk. While publicly the Mayor has written, “We should not spend any more tax dollars on petitions or lawsuits trying to stop the project,” this continued refusal for dialogue seems to be inviting the very things the Mayor has objected to.

The second reading of the proposed City Council ordinance will be held on Tuesday. Void of transparency, without even the courtesy of open debate, the City Council still yet again is moving in a direction contrary to the Mayor’s publically stated intention of “lessons learned,” “we want to talk, we want to discuss, we’ve got to do just that,” at the conclusion of the Jan. 24 city council meeting.

City Council needs to stop playing rhetorical, legal and political games. City Council needs to accept the ordinance as written, endorsed by 1,107 registered voters who signed this petition, and simply let the people decide.


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