Bolton: The good and the bad of elections

Associate EditorOctober 22, 2009 

SOMETIMES we overlook the dramatic difference an election can have on our policies, our laws - even on what gets debated.

With President Obama's election has come a much-needed health care debate we wouldn't have fathomed a president ago. South Carolina has endured nearly seven years of nothingness in terms of real progress in areas such as education because of a governor with his own agenda.

There's no more clear example of how elections can change policy and laws than Richland County Council's recent embrace of digital billboards.

Several years ago, County Council voted to ban all new billboards, responding to public sentiment against the large signs that cause clutter and blight. In doing so, the council set a standard that many other local governments haven't been willing to adopt.

So when billboard companies approached the county about allowing them to replace existing signs with bright digital signs that many - including me - believe only cause greater distractions to drivers, even the sign firms knew they had a high hurdle to cross. Despite intense pressure to make an exception for digital signs, the council stymied the advance of the billboard industry.

But it was only for a season - an election season, that is.

During the last election cycle, two key opponents of digital billboards - Joe Mr. McEachern and Mike Montgomery - were replaced on council by Gwendolyn Davis Kennedy and Jim Manning, respectively.

Mrs. Kennedy, who formerly served on the council, made her return by winning the open seat - primarily on the strength of name recognition - after Mr. McEachern decided to run for the S.C. House; he was successful. Mr. Manning, a Democrat, made no secret that the main reason he was running was because he felt President Obama's coattails would help any Democrat win. He was right. But whatever your party, that was unfortunate for Richland County. Mr. Montgomery, a Republican, was one of the smartest members ever to serve on the council and a public servant who spent much time researching issues and shaping policy in taxpayers' best interest.

While they aren't the only new members of the council, the addition of Mrs. Kennedy and Mr. Manning in particular has changed the dynamics. The billboard industry pounced on the opportunity to take advantage of that change. What might have been a slim majority against digital billboards was transformed into a decided 7-4 vote in favor. It was Mrs. Kennedy and Mr. Manning who revived the digital billboard issue.

There are other Richland County examples that illustrate how the outcome of elections can affect the deliberative process and potential policy decisions.

Interestingly, yet another one involves Mr. Manning. Last year, the council took a strong stand for public health by banning workplace smoking. This year, the first-term councilman came very close to convincing the council to make an exception in its smoking ban that would have essentially gutted it. The exception would have allowed any business, including bars and restaurants, to set up designated smoking areas where employees, those who the ban is supposed to protect from secondhand smoke, would serve patrons. The council had given this absurd proposal two of three required positive votes and was on the verge of giving it final approval when anti-smoking advocates and others alerted it to the big mistake is was about to make.

In another instance, Councilman Norman Jackson made it no secret he was trying to exploit the change in the make-up on the council when he attempted to get the new council to approve a land deal the previous body had wisely shot down. Mr. Jackson was pushing for the county to buy land in Lower Richland from a developer to use as a site for a mega-park. He actually got some traction, but fortunately, the council came to its senses - at least for now - and didn't follow through.

Just as change in elected leadership can bring negative results, it also can be refreshing.

Take, for example, how Cayce has approached the possible development of thousands of acres of flood-prone land along the Congaree River. About two years ago, the Cayce City Council annexed the property in a rushed, secretive manner, causing residents to declare they had been left in the dark.

This year, under new Mayor Elise Partin, the issue has been dealt with in the light. There's even talk about the city jettisoning the property from its limits if possible.

When it appeared that the owner of the property was going to allow a developer to buy and develop a portion of the land - that's now off the table - Ms. Partin insisted the matter be addressed in open session so the public would be included. It was a welcome change.

The bottom line is that when voters make decisions, they had better know who they're electing. It's not enough to know a candidate's political party - particularly in local elections, where most decisions have nothing to do with party. They must know what candidates stand for, what they at least say they will do and whether it's something they actually can do.

That doesn't guarantee voters will make the right choice. (In some races, there are no good choices.) But an informed, educated electorate stands a better chance of making a wise choice than folks who go to the polls just to vote for the person in their favored political party or someone with a recognizable name, regardless of their capability or intent.

But even when the wrong folks get into office, there still is hope - although a few years away. There's always another election, which brings an opportunity to throw the rascals out.

Reach Mr. Bolton at (803) 771-8631 or wbolton@thestate.com.

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