Voters in two Charleston County Council districts will see a few new names on the ballot this November, but they won't be entirely unfamiliar. All of the candidates in the two contested races have spent years attending community forums, organizing petitions, and imploring elected officials to listen to the people.
Three County Council incumbents are running unopposed this year — Joe McKeown, Dickie Schweers, and Teddie Pryor. But sitting members Curtis Inabinett and Paul Thurmond are stepping out of the ring.
District 9 candidate Amy Fabri says, "I'm an engaged citizen." And, if this group of candidates is anything, it's engaged.
"I was hearing from people about what they want to see on Johns Island, Edisto Island, and Wadmalaw Island," says Thomas Legare of his years as a community leader, long before the 2010 campaign season. "I'm still hearing from them. It's not a whole lot different."
Public Service: Johnson previously served three years as a member of the James Island Town Council. "I really enjoyed working with the community, helping them to get some of the services they need," she says. "I'd like to look at this opportunity like a ministry — help our grassroots get the basics." That includes things like safe drinking water and adequate sewer service which come in advance of new subdivisions but often never reach historically rural communities. "It's the kinds of things you think everyone has, but some people have conditions we don't think exist." That also includes dangerous rural roads that need to be properly maintained. "Some people can't drive their car to their front door," Johnson says. "And they're paying takes like you and I do."
Recreation: Residents on Edisto Island in particular have spoken up about recreation needs, but Johnson says it is an issue the entire district could improve on. It's also something that was a priority for her while serving on the James Island Town Council. "Kids need to have something constructive to do. They need to be somewhere you feel safe," she says.
Jobs: As a rural district, there aren't a lot of opportunities for work in the community. Over the past several decades farm workers moved on to construction and retail work off of the islands. With the economic downturn, those people are out of work and need help. Johnson applauds recent efforts by the county to support small businesses and would push for more educational forums. "It's about helping people become entrepreneurs and start up businesses in their own homes," she says.
Growth: "I know it's going to grow," Johnson says of the district. "But the islands shouldn't look like the City of Charleston. It should still look like the islands."
I-526 Extension: Johnson opposes the $489 million plan because it's not a cost-effective solution for commuter traffic (shaving two minutes off a trip), it will negatively impact residents, and it may cause more problems than it solves.
Crime: Legare says safety has been a concern throughout the district, which includes Johns Island, Wadmalaw Island, and Edisto Island. "We'd like to get better and more police protection," Legare says, noting he'd divert existing county resources rather than increase county costs for improved enforcement. He'd also seek out federal grant funding when available. He notes turning to Uncle Sam isn't the ideal solution, "but, if we don't get it, someone else will."
Rural: Quality of life has been a frequent topic in Legare's campaign, and a lot of that has to do with the country living that has been a familiar trademark of the District 8 communities. "A lot of people don't want to live in a suburb," he says. "It makes more sense to focus on in-fill development," he says, where water, sewer, and schools already exist.
Agribusiness: A popular Johns Island farmer in his own right, Legare's development concerns have to do with its impact on farmers. "If it gets to where a farmer can't drive a tractor down the road, we've got a problem," he says. But it goes beyond just preserving the agriculture industry that we have — Legare wants to see it thrive in the 21st century. That includes roadside signs directing shoppers to attractions like the Charleston Tea Plantation on Wadmalaw or Legare's own pumpkin patch. "That's economic development," he says. "Agriculture is our breadbasket. It enables us to eat locally."
I-526 Extension: Legare has spoken out forcefully against the planned highway — which would extend the Mark Clark from Savannah Highway to the James Island Connector. "We need to stop right now," he says of ongoing plans he calls antiquated. "It's a 40-year-old idea. We don't drive a 40-year-old car or use a 40-year-old refrigerator." Calling it a "$500 million boondoggle," Legare says there is a better way to spend that money: improve existing intersections. And he'd consider a light rail proposal from Summerville to the Charleston peninsula to target the region's traffic problems where they live. "I'm not an expert, but I think we need to give it serious consideration," Legare says.
IRE: With her co-founders at the Islanders for Responsible Expansion, Fabri has led the charge on James Island to stand against questionable developments that would impact natural resources. Fabri grew up on James Island, but left for work in the Northeast. "I saw a very changed James Island when I returned," she says. The IRE is best known for its opposition to expansion plans at the James Island Walmart that threatened nearby wetlands; the project was eventually scrapped. IRE's approach hasn't been about burning bridges, it's about saying "no" and offering an alternative. "You can't just be against everything in the world," she says.
Communication: Voters aren't apathetic about local government, they're just confused about the process, Fabri says. "People just don't know who to go to when they have a problem," she says. With IRE, volunteers scour local government notices and send out alerts and calls to action when a particularly questionable project arises. "We're giving residents a voice," Fabri says. It has also allowed her to establish a relationship with local municipal leaders — most have been helpful, but some have given her a lesson in how not to behave. "Some elected officials we approached didn't give us the time of day," she says. "As a resident, it was very frustrating to have someone feel they didn't need to respond to me."
I-526 Extension: The planned highway extension is a good example of the difficulty in holding the government accountable, Fabri says. While the state Department of Transportation is managing the project, it's the County Council that has the final say on road plans. IRE members have been some of the most prominent opponents of the road plan, driving a movement to re-evaluate alternatives. "We really need to think outside the box," Fabri says.
Business: The region is in a perfect position to attract economic development, with a growing port, a new focus on rail shipping, and the big fish — Boeing's Dreamliner facility, says Fabri, a businesswoman. "We have a really good opportunity to attract global business," she says.
Experience: Qualey has been a leader in forming the Town of James Island for more than six years. He says that experience will be an asset on County Council. "I know land use and zoning," he says. "I know how government works."
Penny Pincher: Qualey offers the same "belt-tightening" motto offered by the other candidates, noting the county needs to maximize every dollar. "That's what small business owners are having to deal with every day," Qualey says. "I do that as a small business owner. I do that as a breadwinner."
Fiscal Hawk: On James Island Town Council, Qualey was a frequent critic of the town's spending and bloated staff. "I'm a taxpayer, and people in government need to recognize that the money they're spending is not theirs." He wants to follow the money to see how it's used and whether voters are getting "the most bang for their buck."
Problem Solver: Well aware of resident concerns about summer traffic on Folly Road, Qualey says he offered a solution as a town councilman: hiring a county deputy for roughly $200 on the weekends to manipulate the light at Camp and Folly roads to improve the flow of traffic. "It was inexpensive, non-permanent, and didn't require a year-and-a-half of debate," Qualey says.
Lil' Boeings: Qualey says increased economic development in the area should focus on small business incentives, noting Boeing's recent incentive package of tax exemptions and cuts for its Dreamliner facility. He'd like to see if those kinds of incentives could be provided on a smaller level to local businesses to improve job creation.
I-526 Extension: Qualey notes that most people he's talked to are opposed to it, that he voted against it on James Island Town Council, and that the county and the state don't have the money for the project. "We've got to stop spending money that we'll put on the backs of taxpayers," he says. "Spend what you've got." Qualey says he'd rather see road widening, turn lanes, and improved intersections.