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4-1 vote: sports complex question on ballot

Cushman: referendum is non-binding

Posted: February 28, 2012 5:10 p.m.
Updated: February 29, 2012 5:00 a.m.

“Should the City of Camden continue with plans to construct a recreation facility and partner with a third party to administer the facility?”

Unless some other action forces a change, that is the question that will appear on ballots for city of Camden voters to consider this November. Camden City Council voted 4-1, with Councilman Willard Polk voting against, on second reading to pass an ordinance placing the referendum question on the ballot.

Yet, no matter how the people vote in November, the referendum question is legally non-binding. That means that even if a majority of city voters said “no,” council could theoretically still move forward with its proposal to build a multi-million-dollar regional sports complex, possibly to be run by the YMCA of Columbia.

The only other obstacle to council’s plans is a lawsuit filed by Herbert Farber and the Camden Committee for Responsible Government (CCRG). Farber and the CCRG object to the city’s proposal to use hospitality taxes to pay for the sports complex’s construction. The suit is currently in a discovery phase with Farber and the CCRG seeking much of what appears to be the same material the group sought through a S.C. Freedom of Information Act request late last year.

Council’s vote on the referendum question came after four members of the Camden Recreation Referendum Committee (CRRC), all of whom have spoken before council at past meetings, spoke during the meeting’s public forum. The CRRC turned in a 1,100-plus signature petition in January asking for what it said is a much more detailed and specific ballot question than what the city is putting forward.

“For months, efforts have been made by the citizens to get your attention, to get you to listen,” Paddy Bell began. “Not one, not two, but three petitions have been executed, vast amounts of energy, time, effort and other resources have been utilized to get your attention, to get you to listen. After presenting the January ‘People’s Petition’ of 1,107 signatures, it seemed perhaps we did get your attention. Perhaps -- your actions prove, however, that you have yet to listen.”

Bell said the clear evidence of that failure to listen comes through the version of the referendum question council passed later in the meeting. She said council has “compromised the integrity” of the citizen-signed petition by “manipulating and distorting the ballot question with language that is as vague and undefined as to be meaningless” to Camden voters.

“This is most blatantly apparent with your lack of identifying the project by the very name you have been promoting it under -- the YMCA Sports Complex. You simply call it ‘a recreational facility,’” Bell said. “The irony is that your ordinance resembles the petition presented to you in November -- the one you are challenging in court for having too little detail. And, now, the current petition is being criticized and challenged for having too much detail.”

She “extended the hand of compromise,” offering to have the CRRC’s attorney work with City Attorney Charles Cushman to collaborate on a question whose wording would be suitable to all. Bell claimed Cushman had refused to cooperate on that and other matters. She said she has received a “flood” of questions from people about the city’s actions.

“All fair questions from citizens who trusted that their signatures would result in a referendum that would not be hijacked by word manipulations,” Bell said.

Her question for council, then, was whether it would be willing to work with the CRRC to resolve the issue as partners, not adversaries. If so, she asked for members not to pass the ballot question as written.

Jim Parrish insisted the CRRC’s goal is improved recreation for both the community and the county. He said the discussion of recreation facilities in the city during the past few months likely spurred the county to move forward with work on its own recreation plans. Parrish noted the county has held several public meetings about that effort.

“At the session held in Camden last Thursday, only one city council member attended. You still have the opportunity to complete the survey online,” Parrish said, and urged council members to do so.

Meanwhile, Parrish said, the city’s version of the referendum question was “not acceptable” to the CRRC.

“We expect a binding referendum and one which would provide for an alternative plan for recreation rather than a facility operated by a third party,” Parish said.

Tray Dunaway noted that the CRRC’s version of the question -- as put forward in the January petition -- took up a full four pages seeking not only voters’ minds on the sports complex as proposed by the city, but a process to create an alternative facility.

“Your apparent response has been to draft an ordinance of your own that consists of 23 words for a simple, non-binding, yes-or-no vote for the sports complex,” Dunaway said.

He said the common answer from the city as to why it has done so was “to simply put the matter to a vote so the city could move forward with a clear mandate.”

“If a binding referendum remains an impasse, I would ask each of you, today, to go on the record individually to state if you will respect the vote of a referendum,” he said. “If November voters choose to reject the sports complex, under this or a future council, the city could, at a later date, renew activities to construct a recreational facility -- to start over again. In the meantime, by the city’s proposed ordinance, citizens today would get nothing in regard to a new recreational facility.”

Dunaway said, however, that some council members might “fear” the version of the ballot question put forward by the CRRC because it could “possibly obligate the city to build something they can’t afford.” He claimed the language of the CRRC version contains no such obligation but, rather, would “follow a balanced, open process to … develop an affordable community recreational center that could be funded in part by hospitality tax dollars.”

Dunaway also said if the city is upset that tax dollars are being spent on defending legal actions concerning the sports complex, he had one solution: cast aside Tuesday’s second reading of the referendum language.

“The petitioners are not against development of a recreational facility. They object to the currently proposed sports complex and the manner in which the city has made decisions to justify usage of hospitality tax revenue to enable financing, creating enormous community discord,” Dunaway concluded.

Mary Beth Schultz called council’s rewording of the ballot question “an insult.”

“If the majority of citizens are against the building of the sports complex, the CRRC petition has proposed alternative plans. For the city to present the petition question that deletes the alternative plan says we citizens don’t think anything should be fixed with our recreation programs. That is absolutely not the case,” Shultz said.

She said council’s actions may give citizens the feeling they must vote “yes” or “no” for the city’s proposed complex or they will not have any new recreational needs met.

“That is really sneaky,” Schultz said. “But (the) CRRC can see through it and refuses to accept the referendum question as stated by council. The CRRC petition is what citizens signed. This is a binding referendum. For you folks to rewrite the question would make it a non-binding referendum question which means council would not have to act on the results.”

Schultz claimed it is evident council does not want to work with the county on the issue.

“I realize the city staff has worked hours on this project and spent quite a bit of taxpayers’ money. With that said, I and others have talked referendum since last March, before any work had been done and any money spent. I ask -- whose fault is this wasted money? This project is not well thought out -- still isn’t -- and citizens deserve to be able to vote with the CRRC’s petition question or something comparable,” she concluded.

 The question over whether or not the city’s version of the referendum question would be binding on council was not lost on Councilman Walter Long. During comments he made ahead of the vote, Long asked Cushman about that very point.

“I want to be clear,” Long asked, “Is this all or nothing?”

“No,” Cushman said. “We purposely left it broad so that we can change it if needed. If this passes, and you reach an agreement with the county, that would allow you to partner with that third party (the county) and proceed with plans to build a recreational facility.”

Later in the morning, while council was in executive session to discuss City Manager Kevin Bronson’s performance evaluation, Bell and Dunaway approached Cushman for clarification.

Cushman told them that Tuesday’s vote currently binds council to place the city’s version of the referendum question on the November ballot. However, the referendum itself is not binding on council. Cushman said the case law has determined that the state statute governing referendum questions keep them from being binding on current or future councils.

Mayor Jeffrey Graham launched council’s discussion of the referendum question by reading out the entire ordinance members were voting on. The entire ordinance recognizes that the CRRC (“a group of concerned citizens”) circulated and then abandoned two petitions only to bring about a third with a version of the question that “would likely be declared invalid.”

Cushman later explained to Bell and Dunaway that, in his opinion, a judge would likely strike language from the CRRC’s version calling for the formation of a special recreation committee to develop alternatives.

Polk, the only council member to vote against the referendum ordinance, said he was choosing to do so after “having undergone a year of great consternation and concern” about the issue and that he wished to make an observation.

“A group of caring, concerned, conscientious citizens acted to come up with three petitions for this to be put to a vote,” Polk said. “Now, we finally arrive at this time, but the referendum wording is different from the petition -- a question developed from an attorney well-versed in the law.”

Polk said he thought the matter would be put to rest “after struggling many months on this entire issue,” but that was no longer the case.

“We should not forget who elected us and who we serve. We should be willing to compromise with all our citizens to come up with an amicable solution to this problem and move forward, (but) contrary to my promise to bring about a quick resolution, I must stand with these people,” Polk said of why he would vote against the measure.

Councilwoman Alfred Mae Drakeford said it was a great day for her, personally, when council voted to purchase the section of Boylan-Haven-Mather Academy property chosen as the project site.

“I did not make a hasty decision to build that facility on that property,” Drakeford said. “When I campaigned in 2004, recreation was No. 1 on my platform agenda. It was one of my initiatives because the city had already said that Rhame Arena was beyond repair.”

She cited estimates at the time of as much as $4 million to bring the facility up to code; the full cost of the city’s proposed sports complex is in the $6 million range.

“My thing was, it’s OK to bring it down (if) we have a place for our children to go to participate in extracurricular activities. It was always my position not to demolish Rhame until we had a new facility,” Drakeford said.

She said the city had the opportunity to do just that until “many of you” decided that was not needed. She said she has listened for more than a year to people “berate” council for the decision to pursue a possibly YMCA of Columbia-run sports complex.

“You said, ‘Rhame is good enough, our children have what they needed, we don’t need to spend that kind of money on minorities,’” Drakeford said. “You said we needed to put it on the ballot even though the people had already told us twice that we needed it. Your comments affected me, personally. The problem with the construction was race-based, not community-based. This is what I feel and it’s based on comments from that podium right there, and from additional comments.”

Drakeford said she has worked hard to make the city a better place to live, work and play, and took exception to what she said were Facebook comments concerning her ability to make her own decisions.

“You don’t know me very well. People who know Alfred Mae Drakeford know you can count on me to be my own person. All I want is what’s best for the city of Camden,” she said.

Long said the CRRC and its supporters should look at Tuesday’s vote on the city’s version of the ballot question as a victory.

“Instead, you continue to attack this council in the newspaper and at our public forums,” Long said. “It may not be as you wish, but it is a pretty darn good compromise and a whole lot more clear. Does anyone know who this shadow group known as CRRC is? I don’t. I suspect the majority of the speakers here today are members. What I do know is that this is a group that wants to run (the) government without ever having run for elected office.”

Long characterized CRRC members as zealots, pulling a definition from a dictionary that read “a person who is fanatical and uncompromising in pursuit of their religious, political or other ideals.”

“This reaction today by our public forum speakers confirms what I have always believed. This movement was never about giving voice to the people; it’s about hijacking city government because this group never wanted the project to go forward in the first place.

“You have petitioned for a referendum. You now have a referendum being proposed by council and what is your response? You say it’s not exactly what you wanted to say. Why is that? Is it because (the) wording does not give you absolute control? This question is straight forward and gives the voter an opportunity to be heard,” Long said. “I’m sure this group will now sue the city because they didn’t get exactly what they wanted, but I say to you -- get over it! It’s time to move on and work for the betterment of Camden.”

Councilman Pat Partin said he was going to try to be positive in his comments, but still said he didn’t understand the CRRC’s actions.

“Like Councilwoman Drakeford, I had something on my mind when I came on council. It was to improve this city. I think we’ve done a very god job of that so far. I think the current administration has taken more positive activity toward making the city a better place to live,” Partin said. “Some people have disagreed with us on the Town Green. There are just going to be people who disagree. They say we have not listened to the people. Well, we have.”

Partin said the difference now is that council has listened and acted but there are still those who say the city is not doing the right thing. He said there are those who claim the Town Green has fewer parking spaces and has nothing going on.

“The absolute truth is that there are more parking spaces … and there at least six things that are going to go on there that will draw people from outside the city,” Partin said.

He said he has recently been to Chester and Hartsville and has been impressed with the job those communities and others have done to improve their downtowns.

“What has this go to do with the complex? In my mind, it’s about moving forward,” he said.

Partin addressed critics who said the city was unwilling to work with the county. He said the city actually approached the county earlier in the process, was told the county was not interested in working on the complex at that point, but is now expressing an interest.

“Let me ask you something: was anything being done by county council before the city stepped forward? The answer is ‘no,’” Partin said. “Was there a county study five to 10 years ago? Yes, there was, but they did very little.”

He said he was very excited several years ago when the county announced it would be building a new recreation department complex at Woodward and Lynwood parks. It never happened, he pointed out.

“What I don’t understand is a group of citizens who are not willing to make our town better. What does that have to do with the YMCA and a recreation facility? People said we really haven’t done any studies. That’s not true. We have, in depth. We have considered whether the community can support this project and we believe that it can. We have looked into whether it’s affordable and the truth is, yes, we can, without raising taxes.

“We‘re ready to move forward to make your life, your children’s lives, your grandchildren’s lives better. We’re your fellow citizens. We meet you on the streets, eat at your restaurants, use your doctors … we are right here. I don’t understand why you think we have a hidden agenda,” Partin said.

He said the “main reason” he is working so hard on projects like the sports complex is because of his son who lives in the area with his grandchildren.

“I want them -- I want your grandchildren -- to have the ability to live here, but that can only happen if we approve this complex, if we improve this city -- not with words, but with actions. Let’s move,” Partin urged.

He also noted that some people have mentioned the city’s proposed tax incremental financing, or TIF district in letters to the editor or on Facebook, but that none of the speakers Tuesday had ever visited him or called his office to discuss it.

“You have failed to do so. It’s not my job to convince you … it’s both of our obligations to learn. What I’m asking you is if you want compromise, then compromise with us, and do what’s right for all the citizens of Camden,” Partin said.

At that point, Graham called for the vote with Polk casting the lone “nay.”

In other business:

• United Way of Kershaw County President Donnie Supplee updated council on the agency’s work in the areas of poverty, hunger/homelessness, health, education and community initiatives.

• Council voted unanimously to change the time of its meetings on the second Tuesday of the month from 8:30 a.m. to 6:30 p.m. effective in March. Work sessions will be held before all regular meetings, from 4:30 to 6:15 p.m. Council will meet once next month, March 27 at 6:30 p.m.

• Council voted unanimously to approve a $36.5 million loan from what is commonly referred to as the State Revolving Fund to construct the city’s new S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control-mandated wastewater treatment plant.

• Council voted unanimously to approve by resolution a new set of post-issuance tax compliance policies and procedures.

• Council unanimously approved three façade grants -- Wateree Animal Hospital, $2,500 match for $5,350 project; Tom Kohn Building (Little Street), $2,500 match for $5,940 project; and Books on Broad, $2,492 match for $4,984 project.

• Following the executive session, Mayor Graham praised Bronson performance, saying he “exceeded the standard of managers across the state.” Graham said there were areas for improvement, especially in helping the city and council communicate more effectively with the public. As for whether Bronson will receive a raise in conjunction with the evaluation, Graham said, “We evaluate all raises during the budget cycle -- as we do with all employees -- which will start in the next couple of weeks.”

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