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Critics speak; council moves ahead with Y talks

MOU passes on split, 4-1, vote

Posted: September 15, 2011 4:11 p.m.
Updated: September 16, 2011 5:00 a.m.

Claims of dictatorship. Accusations of the suspension of democracy. Counter-claims of failing Camden’s children. Assertions that residents have already spoken their minds.

Camden City Council navigated through that and more during a 90-minute-long meeting before coming to a 4-1 decision to sign a memorandum of understanding (MOU) with the YMCA of Columbia. The MOU provides a legal framework for the city and YMCA to share information and continue negotiations toward possibly having the YMCA manage a proposed city-built sports complex. Council also voted -- unanimously -- to form a seven-member sports complex advisory committee.

Five people spoke against the project during the meeting’s public forum. Former Camden Planning Commission member Ronnie Bradley began by accusing Camden Mayor Jeffrey Graham of being a “dictator.”

“Leaders convince their people to follow them; dictators demand their people follow them,” Bradley said. “Look at the world today: longtime dictators are kicked out of power by the people so the people can participate in their government.”

A visibly upset Councilman Pat Partin interrupted Bradley’s comments only to have Graham remind him of the need for protocol during council meetings. Partin made a motion asking to be allowed to speak -- something council does not do during public forums -- but received no second.

“I’m not trying to say you’re breaking the law or rule of ethics,” Bradley continued, “but I think you could ease a lot of minds if you put this YMCA project on hold until you get a ruling from the Attorney General and the state ethics commission on several matters about this project.”

The city’s bond attorney, Margaret Pope, recently advised council it could use hospitality taxes to fund the construction of a sports complex.

Later, during council’s discussion ahead of the MOU vote, Partin responded to Bradley’s suggestion of contacting Attorney General Alan Wilson.

“What is the attorney general’s opinion worth? Nothing,” Partin declared. “It is a kid, fresh out of law school, giving an opinion. It is not an order of the court. It’s not worth a dime. The person who did give us that opinion has been an attorney for 30 years. She helped write the legislation on the hospitality tax. That’s what she told us: yes, the hospitality tax can be used.”

Bradley also questioned the state’s definition of “tourist” as anyone coming from outside a city, even someone from just over a town line. He said it was “confusing” in today’s economic climate for the city to spend $375,000 to find out how much a new sports complex might cost and suggested what he estimated to be $15 million in costs over a 30-year period be put toward infrastructure upgrades.

Richard Lackey, who once served on a city-county recreation commission, noted that while he has never said the city shouldn’t build a recreation center, he has said “not a YMCA.” Lackey said Camden does not have a membership base to support a Y.

During council’s Sept. 8 work session, YCMA of Columbia CEO Bryan Madden said SEER Analytics concluded the Camden area could supply 893 member families during a Camden YMCA’s first year of operation.

Lackey also estimated the salary base required to operate programs would exceed revenue -- revenue he claimed would be siphoned off to the YMCA’s national headquarters in Chicago. He also said the facility would not fit its intended use as a stand-alone YMCA.

“Eliminate the (city) arena and youth basketball, and you would far exceed capacity (at a Y) unless you control participation,” Lackey said, claiming between 300 and 500 youth would want to participate in such programs. “The groups you are promising to help will be the most hurt by having a YMCA. Those on one end of the economic scale would be deprived because of inadequate facilities and inadequate funding. Those on the other end would pay excessively or not get what they envisioned.”

Instead, Lackey suggested negotiating a management agreement with the county.

“Fund upgrades of selected facilities to draw teams and participation from outside the area to justify the use of the hospitality tax. Build a new replacement for the arena if you believe that is justified. Just make sure it will accommodate those that use the arena now. I beg you to come back to this community and do what the people want and need,” Lackey said.

Mary Beth Shultz said she was distraught to hear Partin say at the Sept. 8 work session that -- as she put it -- “this is not a democracy, that the citizens elected council and that they knew what was best for the city of Camden.”

“I have to say that you people have lived solely by that premise,” Shultz said.

Later, as council debated the MOU’s merits, Partin explained what he meant by those comments.

“If we lived in a true democracy, then anytime anyone wanted to make a law, we would have to get together to decide,” Partin said. “What I said is that we are a democratic republic with elected representatives.”

Shultz also said she found it “interesting” that Councilman Walter Long suggested the formation of the citizens advisory committee at the work session.

“These people appeared to be hand-picked by Walter Long. He just brought up the subject and already had the people picked. Another example of the lack of democracy,” Shultz said.

“That a nice move, Ms. Shultz, trying to destroy the credibility of the committee before we even get started,” Long said as council began discussing the appointments at the end of Tuesday’s meeting. “If you had stayed for the entire work session, you would have heard all the members of council mention people they wanted on the committee.”

Council discussed possible appointees following a late break in the Sept. 8 work session; Shultz and others with her left during that break.

Shultz also said Madden said during the work session that Camden would not be able to support an indoor pool.

“That was one of the biggest items you folks talked about,” Shultz said. “You folks (also) wanted a tennis complex to be a part of the YMCA. Bryan Madden said the Y would not agree to house a tennis complex.”

Partin later stated what Madden actually said was that a Camden YMCA could not be solely based on having tennis courts.

“He repeatedly told us that the YMCA could be supported in this community,” Partin said. “Over and over and over again he repeated that statement.”

Madden also said he would not recommend building an indoor pool during a Camden YMCA’s first year. He suggested the Y build up its membership and then consider building an indoor pool.

Shultz also claimed the YMCA would want assistance from the United Way of Kershaw County for its membership scholarships -- assistance she said would take funding away from other United Way organizations. In conclusion, Shultz said whatever advisory committee is formed needs to start the entire project over again and look at “all the options available to us,” including renovating Rhame Arena or purchasing the former Camden Middle School site on Laurens Street.

“You people could be heroes to Camden’s citizens if you decided to listen and be open to suggestions,” Shultz said. “It will take more time, but anything worthwhile usually does. There is no hurry. Mayor Graham believes I am against progress in Camden. That is not the case. We can be better stewards of our money if we begin to work together in the spirit of cooperation.”

Two others speaking during the public forum were Helen Crolley, who recently spearheaded a petition against a publicly-built, YMCA-operated recreation facility; and Jim Parrish, who said the number of people opposed to the process the city is using to build the facility is growing.

When it came time to discuss the MOU, Long said that while many in the audience might believe its signing meant a Camden-YMCA agreement is a “done deal,” there are still many questions to be answered.

“Including cost,” Long said. “To those of you who say we are not heeding your concerns, I want you to know that I have listened and I will continue to listen. I know that (Atlas Gym owner) Charles King is not here today, but I want him and others in the fitness industry to know that I understand their concerns. I think Mr. King and a few others take your comments a bit too far on Facebook with your venomous tone, but that’s your right.”

Long said he understands some people believe spending any money in the current economic climate is wrong.

“I understand those of you who question the survivability of a YMCA in Camden. The fact is, whether you like it or not, respect it or not, I just don’t agree with you,” he said.

Long said opponents’ claims that council is not listening to or heeding their concerns is code for “stop.”

“I’m not satisfied with where we are as a town. We need to do something different in Camden. Doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results does not work for me.

“If you are at the age that your children are not adults and living elsewhere, have you ever asked yourself why they didn’t move back to Camden? I’d be willing to bet that it’s not for lack of desire, but rather lack of opportunity,” Long said.

He said he wants his and others’ children to have the opportunity to live in Camden.

“I know many people will say that my comments today are a stretch and question the ability of a sports complex to attract jobs and families to Camden. I disagree,” Long said. “I think we need this sports complex. I think we need the YMCA to run it. We need to do something different in Camden.”

Councilman Willard Polk said Madden made a “very good presentation” Sept. 8.

“And I substantially agree with him on the many benefits a YMCA has to offer the youth of a community,” Polk said. “However, in his presentation, he stated ‘there must be a strong spirit of cooperation’ among many organizations. I do not believe that spirit of cooperation is present or that it is the right time for the city to be investing in a project of this magnitude that will ‘tie up’ hospitality taxes that have been and should be used to benefit several different organizations that promote tourism in its truest sense.”

Polk did say he believes there may be a need for a YMCA or something like it in the future, but felt the process for getting council where it was Tuesday night was “flawed from the beginning.”

“There have been more negative comments than positive comments that I have seen or heard from constituents regarding this matter,” Polk said, making a motion to table the matter in favor of a voter referendum.

Partin asked for a show of hands, asking how many people lock their doors at night.

“Was it like that when you were a child?” Partin asked. “We never locked our doors in my entire childhood. Somewhere along the way, we adults have messed up. We have not provided a suitable place for our children. When I was a child, there was a functioning YMCA, there was a teen canteen. Yes, there was probably some beer drinking outside, a little bit, and some partying around, but nothing like we have now.”

Partin said council’s “movement” to building a sports complex is “about the children in our community.” He said Camden has “moved backwards” during the past 50 years. Partin also said the citizens of Camden have spoken twice on a sports complex: once during the drafting of the city’s 2007 10-year Comprehensive Land Use Plan and again in 2008 while defining the city’s vision plan. In both cases, Partin said, public input was gained through numerous public meetings. Polk, he said, even sat on the comprehensive plan’s ad hoc committee.

Reading excerpts, Partin said both documents state citizens’ desire for a sports complex, even a YMCA.

“I don’t understand why we need more input. What has changed between 2007 and now? One thing that’s changed is that we now have a hospitality tax that allows us to do such a thing. Is it important? You bet your bottom dollar. Did the citizens of Camden tell us to do it? Yes, they did,” he said.

Partin also said the sports complex’s construction would be funded through the existing hospitality tax.

“It won’t cost one plug nickel in additional taxes,” Partin said. “This is about bringing our children back to Camden and turning the community around. I don’t mean to offend anybody, I just want to make it clear that I’m going to follow it to the end and see if we can do it.”

Councilwoman Alfred Mae Drakeford did not speak on the matter ahead of the vote, deferring to Graham who read excerpts of letters (see accompanying story) he received from Camden High School students supporting the construction of a YMCA-type facility following a recent visit there.

“As we look at this MOU, we get more questions answered,” Graham said. “This community as a whole will have to make that decision. We appreciate your thoughts and considerations, but we have to listen to all the citizens of Camden.”

Graham then called for the vote, which came down 4-1, Polk against.

Council later voted unanimously to form the sports complex advisory committee. Long made the motion to appoint Woody Cleveland, Don Terrell, George Sensor, the Rev. Ellis White, Kim Younghans, Bruce Little and Camden Historic Landmarks Commission (CHLC) member Bruce Brown. Partin successfully amended the motion, adding three ex-officio spots to include one staff member each from the city and county and a YMCA of Columbia designee.

Polk made a motion to either substitute or add to Brown’s appointment with another CHLC member, Ben Schreiner. No one seconded the motion, leaving the number of citizen appointees at seven, plus the three ex-officio members.

In other business, council unanimously:

• passed second and final reading of an ordinance amending Section 112.03 of the city code to include verbiage regarding temporary alcohol service/consumption in public facilities;

• granted such a permit to the Fine Arts Center of Kershaw County for this October’s Carolina Downhome Blues Festival;

• awarded a $477,399.40 bid to Insituform Technologies Inc. for sewer upgrades along portions of King, Bull, Lyttleton and Market streets -- the work is being funded through a $500,000 federal Ready-to-Go grant; and

• approved four façade grants in the 2600 block of Broad Street and a fifth in the 1100 block of Broad Street.

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