Bolton: Is this the image Cayce wants?

Associate EditorDecember 6, 2009 

THE CITY of Cayce is developing an image far from what officials, who've been working to establish an identity for the municipality, had in mind.

With SCANA, a Fortune 500 company, moving to Cayce and a grandiose new State Farmers Market being built nearby, the city is poised to move up into a bigger league. But instead of capitalizing on those things, Cayce is fast becoming the city that sweats the small stuff. Really, really small, downright petty stuff.

Instead of focusing on improving their city, some City Council members have gotten embroiled in a counterproductive attempt to undermine the mayor.

Mayor Elise Partin, who took office in January, probably should have seen it coming. After all, not only did she crash an all-boys club - she's the city's first female mayor and the only woman on the council - but she dared to have her own agenda.

During the election, Ms. Partin made it clear she was running against the establishment and that she intended to bring new ideas and new energy to the city. She pledged to listen to citizens, lead a charge to develop a plan and new identity for the city and improve the quality of life. She constantly talked about being more transparent in a city where the council hurriedly and as hush-hush as possible annexed thousands of acres of flood-prone land - property Columbia and Richland County wouldn't allow to be developed - with the apparent hope of it being developed.

Voters had heard Ms. Partin's pitch. They expected - and wanted - her to follow through. That's what she's attempting to do. But it'll come at a price.

She knows that.

"I'm not going to give up just because they're putting up a fight," Mayor Partin said. "People asked me to take care of this city, and as long as I'm entrusted with that, that's what I'm going to do."

She's made some progress, particularly on making government more transparent. But she's also had to fight a few battles. Much of what she's done has been placed under a microscope, with council members questioning her expenses and asserting that she's making promises on behalf of the city that she shouldn't. She also has been criticized for how she raised money to pay for a development and marketing plan for the city.

On the matter of expenses, a review of city records by The State showed that, during the first 10 months of her term, Ms. Partin has received about half the $4,000 her predecessor, Avery Wilkerson, received during a comparable time in office. Councilman Steve Isom, among the mayor's biggest critics, questions specific items, such as Ms. Partin's requests to be reimbursed for travel back and forth from City Hall to her home nearby, for a Blackberry phone and for Internet service at her home.

The council took up two proposals recently in an obvious swipe at Ms. Partin. One, which the city attorney has been tasked with developing, would limit reimbursements. The city doesn't have expense guidelines, instead leaving reimbursement decisions to city manager Johnny Sharpe.

There should be some rules - that's just good stewardship of public funds - and council members should have written them long ago. The fact that the council's motives for doing it now are highly questionable doesn't change the fact that it's worth doing.

The second proposal - one I'm surprised Mr. Isom even had the audacity to propose - would have controlled what council members could say publicly about city business without clearing it with a vote of council. Please. Ever heard of freedom of speech? Ever considered that council members are duty-bound to share information with their constituencies? Ever heard of open government?

Fortunately, someone has, and so this proposal was defeated.

Ms. Partin has also been criticized for how she raised $32,000 from businesses - a number of which do business with the city - for the new city development and marketing plan. I wonder: Is this about the way she went about raising the funds or the fact that she proved she could pull it off?

A state ethics official said Ms. Partin's fundraising effort wasn't done in the manner it should have been, but that it didn't break the law; the mayor didn't benefit personally. Ms. Partin should have created a separate foundation to receive donations and designated a separate account for the contributions.

"I don't have any interest in doing anything wrong," Ms. Partin said. "I want to listen to the residents and leave this city in a way that reflects what's great in the city."

She said she can't imagine what all the fuss is about other than the fact that some members on the council "want me gone."

"It's a bummer because it's wasting a lot of time," she said. "Everything I did, I did with the guidance of the city attorney and the city manager and a unanimous vote of the council."

If you ask me, the claims being lobbed at Ms. Partin is much ado about nothing. Could she have done things differently? Sure. It would have been wise for her to work harder to get others to buy in to her plans. While it's refreshing that she isn't part of the old establishment, she's got to do more than do her homework and offer good ideas; she's got to develop the political savvy to sell those ideas. That can come with time - if she works at it. Chances are, she already has learned a thing of two from her experience thus far.

"I'm not saying I'm perfect, and I've got a pretty good learning curve," Ms. Partin said. She said she's committed to learning as much as she can in order to help Cayce progress.

While the claims made against Ms. Partin amount to no more than petty politics, they aren't without effect. Whether council members know - or care - they've managed to distract an entire city from a worthy goal: improving itself.

Where once Cayce was focused on forging a new identity and becoming a larger player in the area that could chart its own destiny, its leadership has turned on itself and is spending far too much time dividing the city rather than unifying it.

Is this the image it wants?

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

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