Bolton: Smith didn't mind tackling the tough issues

Associate EditorDecember 20, 2009 

IN 1992, as Richland County Council debated whether the public library should accept gifts of free land and money for books from a developer wanting it to build a branch in a gated community in Northeast Richland, Councilwoman Kit Smith didn't bite her tongue.

"It wasn't a gift. It was a bribe," she said, adding it was good-ol'-boy politics and that putting a public library behind the fence of the private Summit could deter some people from visiting.

That drew Mrs. Smith a fair amount of criticism from some; others saw her as a champion who didn't mind taking a stand.

That's the kind moxie - undergirded by a sharp mind, quick wit and well-honed organizational skills - that allowed Mrs. Smith, who recently announced she won't seek re-election in 2010, to be an effective council member during her nearly 20-year stint.

Depending on who you talk to, she's either much beloved - or not. But she earned the respect of friend and foe. And few could doubt her motives: to improve Richland County.

With her impending departure, the county is on the brink of losing yet another member with heft who's served as either a passionate advocate or invaluable watchdog on the council. Councilwoman Bernice Scott, who retired last year after 20 years, was a straight shooter, a consummate advocate who fought fiercely for her constituents. Last election, GOP council member Mike Montgomery, who dedicated himself to vetting issues so the county stayed out of legal trouble, was upset by Democrat Jim Manning. Also, former member Joe McEachern, who has an admirable independent streak as well as a willingness to speak out in the community's best interest, left to join the S.C. House.

Change is often good. The public's business will go on. But it shouldn't be lost on anyone that County Council is losing some good folks while not necessarily getting the same quality in return. While Kelvin Washington, Ms. Scott's son-in-law, holds much promise, Mr. Manning and Gwendolyn Kennedy, a former council member who made a return appearance by winning the seat Mr. McEachern vacated, leave much to be desired. The two already have led the county down the wrong road on digital billboards, and Mr. Manning spearheaded a wrongheaded effort to water down the county's workplace smoking ordinance.

Here's hoping that a good group of candidates offer themselves for Mrs. Smith's District 5 seat and that voters choose the one best suited to serve. Whomever that turns out to be will have some big shoes to fill.

Mrs. Smith has been a tremendous asset. While many politicians shy away from complicated or difficult issues, Mrs. Smith gravitated to them.

She was one of the few who challenged the operation and management structure at the county's Jim Hamilton-L.B. Owens Airport, formerly Owens Field. When the council made the ill-advised decision to allow long-time airport manager Jim Hamilton to sell his overly generous county contracts to Eagle Aviation, Mrs. Smith declared it "in violation of good sense and justice." The council should have sided with taxpayers and negotiated an arrangement that would generate more revenue for the county, which subsidizes the airport.

Few issues over the years have been as charged on County Council as that dealing with paving and scraping dirt roads. Mrs. Smith stepped into the middle of it when she proposed curbing a practice that allows council members to move roads up the paving list without public scrutiny.

But without a doubt, the biggest challenge she had was trying to change the county's thinking when it comes to growth, development and land-use planning. She spearheaded smart-growth efforts that led to the adoption of the Town & Country vision, along with new land-development rules. Early on, she did her homework and educated other council members on the need to rein in sprawl and better plan growth to preserve green space and keep down infrastructure costs.

The results have been mixed at best, mainly because the council lacks the will and courage to say "no" to development and practices that aren't in the best interest of the county and citizens.

Mrs. Smith's smart growth effort didn't endear her to many builders and developers. But Richland County is better off for it. There is at least more awareness of sprawl and the need to plan and control infrastructure costs than there has ever been.

While she certainly has been tuned in to the right channel on many issues, Mrs. Smith wasn't always right. For example, she was dead wrong in championing the attempt to relocate the State Farmers Market from Bluff Road to another location in Richland County. State taxpayers couldn't afford it, and neither could Richland County.

But Mrs. Smith and others were set on not only moving the market but making it a showplace. When the state backed out of the deal, choosing instead to partner with private developers and build a new market in Lexington County, Richland was left holding the bag - and a $4 million mortgage on land it otherwise wouldn't have bought.

Truth be told, it was only good fortune that allowed Mrs. Smith to serve as long as she has.

First, she managed to escape a trap Republicans tried to set for her and fellow Democrat Nancy Sandel back in 1992. The GOP majority tried to solidify its position and oust one of them by placing them in the same district. But they botched the job, mistakenly putting Mrs. Sandel in the same district as GOP member Leone Castles, who had to leave the council because her term was ending and Mrs. Sandel still had two years to serve.

More recently - and more importantly - Mrs. Smith survived a battle with breast cancer in 1996 and is "clear" today.

She says she wants to spend more time with her family. Who can blame her? After all, she spent two decades taking care of the public's business. And she did it well.

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

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