P&C editorial: Don’t keep public in the dark

Don’t keep public in the dark
Friday, May 20, 2011

Too bad Charleston County Council decided to revive the I-526 issue, considering the project’s numerous flaws and the broad public opposition to it, stated in five heavily-attended public hearings last year.

Even worse, council approved the shift, by a vote of 5-4, with only a cursory, half-hearted explanation to the public.

Oh, there was discussion on the topic. But it was in executive session, under the provision allowed for “legal advice.” Council would have been well advised to keep the closed-door conversation to a minimum. This is a matter of intense public interest and deserved to have a full airing in public.

Council’s reversal Tuesday was made possible by two council members, Henry Darby and Anna Johnson, who changed their previous vote in support of the no-build option. County residents deserve an explanation why they decided to reverse course.

When the subject of I-526 was raised, council went immediately into executive session. An hour later, members emerged with a written script to rescind the no-build decision and reconsider the project.

The county attorney was instructed to work with the State Infrastructure Bank, which contends the county must repay $11.6 million that has been spent.

Chairman Teddie Pryor insists the executive session was legal — that the closed-door discussions were about legal matters only.

But the county’s legal position is of significant interest to the public. Other lawyers contend that the SIB is wrong, and that the county should challenge its claim. Citizens should be concerned that County Council hasn’t even alluded to that possibility in a public forum. Perhaps it hasn’t even considered the option.

Even if council members met the letter of the freedom of information law, they ignored the law’s spirit.

Council showed disregard for the public’s right to know how it is handling their business and their money. Council’s constituents are right to be unhappy — including those who disagree and those who simply don’t understand because nobody explained what’s going on. And those who suspect that the council members were capitulating to powerful people in local and state governments. For example, Senate President Pro Tempore Glenn McConnell, R-North Charleston, says the road should be built, despite the public’s objections. Charleston Mayor Joe Riley ardently supports the extension across Johns and James islands.

Based on Mr. Pryor’s remarks, it seems possible that the next incarnation of the expressway could stop at Johns Island — even though a similar propoposal was rejected by the state Department of Transportation.

The I-526 extension is a public highway that would be built with the public’s money. Council has a responsibility to make sure its constituents are kept well informed, particularly when they show up in council chambers for that purpose.

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