It is hard to paint a political caricature of either candidate for Charleston City Council's District 7 seat. On the one hand, Robert O'Brien despises the class-warfare rhetoric in the debate over Union Pier but says the lower-income and minority families in his West Ashley district are being slighted when it comes to parks and sidewalks. On the other hand, Keith Waring wants to eliminate obstacles for small businesses but also hails the arrival of Home Depot and Costco in the district.
Such is the nature of local politics, where — if we're lucky — party lines can dissolve and elected officials can deal with problems on a case-by-case basis. In District 7 — which includes neighborhoods in central West Ashley roughly bound by Savannah Highway, Sam Rittenberg Boulevard, St. Andrews Boulevard, and Interstate 526 — both candidates seem to be more concerned with workaday problems like flooded yards and streets than they are with political gamesmanship.
O'Brien is an Army veteran, retired food broker, and 20-year Charleston resident. He cut his teeth in politics in East Brunswick, N.J., where he served on the Recreation Advisory Board and Turnpike Ad Hoc Committee and was elected Middlesex County Charter Commissioner for a four-year term. In Charleston, he was a member of the community advisory panel for cleaning up coal storage at the Kinder Morgan riverside terminal from 2008 to 2010. He also served on the Republican Committee for St. Andrews.
Waring grew up in what is now District 7, graduating from Middleton High School in 1973 and attending the College of Charleston before transferring to the University of South Carolina to study business finance. He worked for two years in the State House under governors James Edwards and Dick Riley before returning to West Ashley to start a financial planning business, Charlestowne Associates, which he has owned for 29 years. He is the son of District 7 incumbent Louis Waring, who has served on council since 1994 and is retiring from the position at age 83.
O'Brien says that his is the "Cinderella district," neglected among its sisters when it comes to amenities and pedestrian infrastructure. Regardless of the election's outcome, O'Brien wants to get the word out: District 7 needs more parks. The city boasts 120 parks, but only two lie in the district, he says — and even those are poorly maintained. If elected, he would work to get his district more "pocket parks," which can fit on a single-house lot and include a half-basketball court, small playground equipment, and a few benches. "It's a meeting ground, it's a playground, and for the parents and the elderly people, it's a place to congregate," he says. Small neighborhood parks are critical for families living in apartments with no backyards, and especially for people without cars to travel to parks in other districts, O'Brien adds.
O'Brien would also push for more sidewalks in District 7. "You ride in that district, and you'll see old folks walking out in the street and mothers with carriages in the street," he says.
But Waring says phooey to O'Brien's Cinderella claims. "People don't live in District 7 never to venture across the moat to District 8," Waring says. He agrees that there ought to be more sidewalks along Sam Rittenberg Boulevard and Glenn McConnell Parkway, but he says that O'Brien is overstating the problem. He does, however, support the initiative being led by Mayor Joseph P. Riley Jr. and some bicycling advocacy groups to create a bike and pedestrian route across the Ashley River Bridge onto the peninsula.
"Remember the big argument about 'Oh, you don't need the pedestrian pathway on the Ravenel Bridge?' Who thinks it's a waste of money today?" Waring says. "It's a wonderful thing that was done, and we can do that across the Ashley River Bridge as well."
O'Brien disagrees. "The idea of taking a lane out of one of our bridges is maddening," he says. Especially during rush hour traffic when schools are in session, he adds, the bridge can't afford to give up a lane to bikes.
The candidates find common ground in their critique of the current administration's management of the city's finances. Neither is a fan of Mayor Riley's $142 million pet project to renovate the Gaillard Auditorium and add city office space to the building. Waring estimates that a referendum on the issue would show that people prefer spending that money to solve the Crosstown Expressway flooding fiasco, five to one. The Septima P. Clark Expressway, commonly known as the Crosstown, is submerged nearly every time heavy rains hit the peninsula at high tide.
O'Brien says it is too late to call off the Gaillard project, but not too late to fix the financing behind it. He describes the current funding scheme as a "Rube Goldberg setup," depending on a confluence of $71 million in donations, a questionable use of a Tax Increment Financing District, $18 million in accommodations tax and new market tax credits, and the issuing of $23 million worth of general obligation bonds.
In the business world, O'Brien says, "It's not a plan that would be considered prudent. Even if everything were going great in Charleston, this plan wouldn't make sense ... This is fiscal insanity." With the specter of a double-dip recession looming large, he says the city should start reducing its budget by 10 percent every year for the next two years to shore up its reserves for expensive projects like the Gaillard and the $154 million Crosstown fix. He would start by asking council members to cut their own pay by one-third (a savings of $60,000 a year, with the 12 members currently earning $15,000).
Waring offers fewer specifics than O'Brien when it comes to adjusting the city's finances, but he says the Crosstown and other drainage projects should take precedence.
"The glitzy projects we all like, but sometimes we need to take care of some infrastructure," Waring says. "Taking care of infrastructure needs — that's like the foundation of a house. If you don't take care of it, eventually you're going to have a major expense. I mean, how much would it have cost to fix the Crosstown 20 years ago versus today?"
That goes for neighborhood flooding problems, too. Waring says people in West Oak Forest, East Oak Forest, and Orleans Woods have been dealing with flooding in their streets and yards, some for as many as 10 years, and the solution is cheaper and simpler than the Crosstown fix. He says the city should be more proactive about maintaining ditches and drainage systems before they get backed up and present a problem. The city's current maintenance plan is to fix problematic drainage areas "when people call and scream, and I think we're better than that," he says.
This is where the candidates stand on a few other hot-button issues:
• O'Brien is in favor of writing up a contract (or at least a memorandum of understanding) to enforce the city's agreement on cruise ship traffic with the State Ports Authority; Waring is firmly against it. "Cities don't regulate states," Waring says.
• O'Brien says the city has no business hiring lobbyists to petition the state and federal government; Waring says the city has no option but to enter the lobbying arena.
• Waring wants to take another look at the Commercial Corridor Design Review Board, which he says has raised expensive barriers to entry for small businesses.