Ruta Smith file photo
Charleston County Council Chairman Elliott Summey should step down now. He should relinquish the remainder of his term to avoid obvious conflicts of interest and prepare for a shift in leadership coming in 2021.
Since July, Summey has served dual roles as the CEO of the Charleston County Aviation Authority and the chairman of County Council. He was hired without a national search to replace another local politician who was picked as a “stopgap” measure in 2016, former board chairman Andy Savage told the City Paper.
Altogether, Summey’s annualized pay for his dual roles as a public official totals a whopping $334,000, including his $290,000 airport salary, $18,000 car allowance and $27,413 salary as council chairman.
When Summey shuffled from the county’s amphitheatre council chambers to the airport’s glassed-walled boardroom, its chairwoman, Helen Hill, said the incoming boss would not seek reelection to avoid potential conflicts of interest.
Now, it appears conflicts may have come home to roost.
Summey may only have a few weeks left on council, but if the weeks since the November election are any indication, plenty can happen. With post-election political waters calmer, the lame-duck council is debating a proposal that would dump millions of more dollars into airport accounts and speed development around the airport that can’t seem to grow fast enough.
Just a week after the Nov. 3 election, county council gave initial approval to an additional fee for car rental companies that would yield an estimated $4 million per year. The proposed Air Service Development Fund would be used for everything from economic development to infrastructure and maintenance and who knows what else?
Airport officials reportedly have a slew of projects in mind for this not-yet-approved slush fund, including greasing the wheels for state transportation crews to speed a massive rework of the airport access road. He has recused himself when the project comes up for votes, but Summey is still pulling strings at the airport and within county government.
One would hope we could give our elected officials the benefit of the doubt to handle such routine tax-and-spend matters, but that’s no sure thing for Charleston County Council. And, you don’t have to look far for evidence. At the same Nov. 10 meeting, council sold the old naval hospital for $15 million, less than half of what it was forced to pay for it when developers sued the county in 2017.
We’re not alone in recognizing dysfunction on county council. On Nov. 3, county residents rebuffed the current council as well, rejecting two proposals that would have charged its members with stewarding a new affordable housing trust fund. (This was not the case of some anti-tax malaise because voters approved school spending.)
Fortunately, voters also elected two new members of council who seem intent on pushing ahead with purpose. In January, attorney Rob Wehrman will be sworn in for the seat vacated by Summey and the Rev. Kylon Middleton will replace former chairman Vic Rawl, who did not seek reelection.
Middleton told us he believes the county needs leaders who can “turn the page on some of the perceived baggage” of the people who serve on council, aiming toward “strong moral leadership.”
For now, Summey’s colleagues should pressure him to step down, removing the perception of conflict once and for all.
Support the Charleston City Paper
We’ve been covering Charleston since 1997 and plan to be here with the latest and Best of Charleston for many years to come. In a time where local journalism is struggling, the City Paper is investing in the future of Charleston as a place where diverse, engaging views can flourish. We can't do it without our readers. If you'd like to support local, independent journalism:
Charleston City Paper Staff