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2013: A look back - Part One of Three

City and county councils grab headlines in early months

Posted: December 27, 2013 5:03 p.m.
Updated: December 30, 2013 5:00 a.m.

Whether it was Bethune, Camden, Elgin or Kershaw County, councils of the city, town and county variety grabbed headlines throughout 2013, including during the early months of the year.

Bethune shut down its police department claiming there was no money to keep it open, only to start it up again later in the year. Camden dropped plans for a board of architectural review, discussed purchasing -- and then did -- the old Maxway building. Elgin saw two councilmen resign and three council members elected. And Kershaw County Council wrangled over KershawHealth and lost its tourism director.

There were other headlines, of course, some covering much lighter or, at least, somewhat quieter, fare.

Two of the year’s biggest stories came during the first third of the year as well: the unveiling of one of the most significant pieces of art in Camden, and a decision by a local political leader to run for governor again.

January

One of the biggest stories in January led two unfortunately intertwined themes throughout the year: DUI-related deaths and the deaths of people committed to public service. DeWitt Peake, 56, a volunteer with Pine Grove Fire Department since 1978 was killed when he was forced to “lay down” his motorcycle when a man charged with DUI turned left on to Pine Grove Road in front of him. Two months later, the S.C. Highway Patrol reported that traffic fatalities, especially DUI-related fatalities were on the rise. By mid-March there had been four, including Peake’s. Later in the year, the county would lose a female firefighter in a non-DUI single-vehicle accident and a school resource officer to a heart attack.

Plans quickly developed in January to create the Safe Communities Commission using funds from the county’s Safe Schools/Healthy Students grant. The commission, comprised of 14 community leaders, is trying to operate proactively and work to anticipate potential community problems. The grant, obtained by the Kershaw County School District following the gang-related shooting death of high school student Michael Smith in 2007, has funded a number of student-related programs in an attempt to give young people positive alternatives. In March, the commission named bullying its top concern.

For years, members of Camden City Council and others had sought Certified Local Government (CLG) status for the city and the creation of a board of architectural review (BAR). In late January, council dropped both related plans. Council members cited the fact that grant funds for CLG communities are much smaller than they used to be and that they didn’t like a requirement for mandatory historic designations of residential properties for their decision. One thing council did decide to continue was updating design guidelines used by the Camden Historic Landmarks Commission, something still being worked on as the year ended.

February

When readers looked at the front page of the Feb. 1 edition of the C-I, they learned that Elgin Town Councilman “Bubba” Ernst had been arrested for vandalism following a dispute over a lease agreement. For some time, Ernst had leased one of his properties to a gun range operator but had complained that the noise was interfering with his own business. He spent a few hours behind bars for allegedly vandalizing the gun range. In late March, Ernst landed in jail again, this time for assaulting his wife during two incidents, one inside the Elgin town limits, the other just outside town. He fled the area, but was arrested by officers in Mt. Pleasant and soon resigned his council seat. Ernst was the second person to resign from Elgin Town Council in 2013; Councilman Larry Risvold resigned in January, citing U.S. President Barack Obama’s reelection among his reasons. In addition, Councilman Roger Ross had already decided not to run for reelection. By July, all three seats had been filled -- two of them by women. With Councilwoman Melissa Emmons already on board, women now made up a majority of council.

Up in Camden, council ended its search for a new city manager by making Mel Pearson’s interim appointment to the top post permanent. Pearson served as interim manager following Kevin Bronson’s decision to return to Rock Hill. Pearson began working for the city as its finance director in 1999 and named assistant city manager in 2011. He moved to Camden in 1986 as a production manager for a private corporation and served on the staff of the Fine Arts Center of Kershaw County for five years. Pearson served as interim city manager once before between former City Manager Frank Broom and Bronson.

As KershawHealth began celebrating its 100th year of service to the citizens, it came under intense criticism, especially from Kershaw County Council. In mid-February, Councilman Jimmy Jones joined his fellow council members in unanimously approving the appropriation of more than $300,000 in county funds to purchase two ambulances for the hospital. However, Jones also criticized KershawHealth, especially its administrators and their salaries, and how the KershawHealth Board of Trustees conducted business. That, and other criticism, eventually led -- in part -- to one board chair to step back from that position, the election of two new board chairs within six months and, ultimately, the need to search for a new CEO.

March

While KershawHealth celebrates its centennial, Midway Elementary School celebrated its 90th year. In March, the school (once known as Midway High School) hosted 200 people -- more than twice what was expected. During the celebration, classmates, teachers and principals reunited, looked over memorabilia and raised funds to upgrade the schools playground. It’s estimated that more than 20,000 have graced Midway’s halls in 90 years, some of whom are still contributing to the community. Later in the month, the school held a Junior Rodeo; in November, it wrapped up the nearly year-long festivities by unveiling an outdoor classroom.

Mid-March saw the beginning of the end -- for at least one downtown Camden building that is. During a long budget work session, Camden City Council and city staff discussed the idea of purchasing the former home of Maxway department store -- abandoned for nearly 12 years -- on the northwest corner of Broad and Rutledge streets. Various ideas have cropped up for the property: a pocket park, downtown hotel, conference center. In late summer, the walls came tumbling down, removing what many saw as an eyesore. Most recently, the city sent out request for proposals, not only from professional firms, but from the public as well. A committee will meet to sift through it all in January.

One of the most significant highlights of the year came at the very end of March: the unveiling of “Reconciliation,” a piece of functional art on the grounds of the Camden Archives and Museum featuring public benches and life size bronze statues of Baseball Hall of Fame inductee Larry Doby and philanthropist Bernard Baruch, who helped fund the launch of what would eventually become KershawHealth 100 years ago. Far more than 200 people attended the event, which featured Camden Mayor Tony Scully; U.S. Sen. Tim Scott; businesswoman and philanthropist Darla Moore; Baseball Hall of Famer Jim Rice; and attorney, political powerbroker and philanthropist John Rainey. It was Rainey, along with his wife, Anne, who commissioned local artist Maria J. Kirby-Smith to create “Reconciliation.” Rainey said he hoped the monument would help people take away the idea that “we are all one people … a beautiful tapestry (and) demand that our leaders now honor the tapestry by rejecting base, simplistic and destructive rhetoric.”’

April

Despite the rash of DUI-related traffic deaths early in the year, for the second year in a row, The S.C. Department of Public Safety named the Kershaw County Sheriff’s Office as its “Agency of the Year,” specifically for “excelling in the areas of DUI arrests, DUI victim services, and anti-underage drinking programs” in 2012. It won the same award a year earlier during its first year of eligibility. In addition, Deputy Jacob Hammond and Cpl. William West received special recognition for having a high number of DUI arrests in 2012. The awards marked a significant turn-around for Kershaw County, which once had the distinction of having the highest DUI-fatality rate per capita in the state.

Thursday, April 11, 2013, became City of Camden Day at the S.C. State House. Dozens of legislators attended a breakfast and special program in the Blatt Building where Camden Mayor Tony Scully and other city staff introduced them to the oldest inland city in South Carolina. Local eateries brought food while local organizations -- the National Steeplechase Museum, Kershaw County Farmers Market, S.C. Equine Park, Carolina Motorsports Park, KershawHealth, Fine Arts Center of Kershaw County and Historic Camden -- set up tables of information. Scully and City Manager Mel Pearson presented State Rep. Laurie Slade Funderburk  and State Sen. Vincent Sheheen with keys to the city. In return, Funderburk and Sheheen read a joint proclamation on their respective legislative floors.

The day before, Sheheen himself made one of the biggest headlines of the year when he announced he would run for governor again, setting up a rematch with Gov. Nikki Haley, to whom he narrowly lost in 2010. In an exclusive interview, Sheheen said he was running again because he still feels there are things to be fixed in state government and as an answer to what he says is a poor three-year track record from Haley. He said he is focusing on economic development, education and infrastructure. Sheheen published a book shortly before his announcement called The Right Way: Getting the Palmetto State Back on Track, which also includes a focus on restructuring state government.

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