Community tensions over Richland County’s plans for public sewer in Lower Richland are playing into incumbent Norman Jackson’s bid for re-election to County Council.
Challenger Don Weaver said Jackson has done a poor job of communicating the county’s plans and requirements for a $13 million collection system in the lower one-third of the county. The rural system is designed to accommodate growth and address pollution from fewer than 50 households with failing septic systems in Hopkins.
“Honestly, he’s chairman of County Council,” Weaver said. “He should be helping steer some of these issues better for Lower Richland, communicating better, and he’s not.”
As Jackson, a Democrat elected in 2006, seeks a third term in the Nov. 4 election, he is opposed by Weaver, a well-known Republican tax activist making his first bid for public office. District 11 runs from the neighborhoods behind the Dorn VA Medical Center south to McEntire Air National Guard Base.
Weaver clearly is prepared to capitalize on the sewerage issue in a Democratic district where he’s liable to be outspent.
When details for the system were unveiled at community forums last month, the project generated immediate hostility from Hopkins residents. More than 700 people have signed petitions asking the county to halt its plans. Some people don’t see the need for the public utility. Others can’t afford it. Concerns also include opening the countryside to development and the likelihood that sewerage service will increase property values and, therefore, property taxes.
Weaver said the county should not require residents to tie in to the system, at a cost of $4,000 per household or more. At two community meetings on the issue last week, he said he got conflicting information about who is required to participate.
The county utilities director has said only those with failing septic systems must tie in.
But Weaver said he’s not convinced even those residents should be compelled.
“Let’s say your septic tank is failing, and that’s a danger to your neighbors. Why can’t you put another septic tank in?” Weaver asked. “Why are we taking away freedom of choice from these people in Hopkins?”
For his part, Jackson said organizers of the group Hopkins and Lower Richland Citizens United unfairly cast him as one of the two main advocates for the system. Jackson said Councilman Kelvin Washington, who also represents parts of Lower Richland, developed the service plan.
Jackson said soon after he got on the council, he was able to “kill” an early proposal to build a sewerage treatment plant in Hopkins in favor of connecting the line to the county’s Eastover treatment plant, 12 miles away.
He later opposed the plan for the county-funded sewerage system because he said he wanted developers, not county residents, to pay for the collection lines. But he considers the Eastover route the best alternative, he said.
“I’ve always been consistent, we need the system,” Jackson said. “But I would not allow them to build a sewer treatment plant in Hopkins.”
Jackson said he faces a campaign of scare tactics and misinformation — not by Weaver but by Hopkins resident Paul Brawley, the Richland County auditor, who is active in the citizen’s group that sprang up to fight the sewerage plan.
He quoted Brawley as saying “the county conned the people.”
“That’s unacceptable,” Jackson said.
Efforts to reach Brawley Tuesday were unsuccessful. But Wendy Brawley, his wife, said the issue has nothing to do with politics — and everything to do with the project’s effect on the community, environmentally and economically.
She and group spokeswoman Cameo Green said the only “misinformation” has been that distributed to residents has been by the county. They said the county’s seven-page pamphlet on the system conflicts with what Jackson told residents.
How all this will play to voters in the general election is unknown.
County Council District 11 votes Democratic, with slightly more than half its registered voters African-American, political strategist Steve Fooshe said.
That makes it a tough race for Weaver, even with contests on the ballot that could inspire Republican turn out — such as the House rematch between Republican Kirkman Finlay and Democrat Joe McCulloch, and statewide races for U.S. Senate.
“If somebody like Weaver is going to do well,” Fooshe said, “he’s going to have to use a message that tries to get people not to pull the straight party ticket.”
And Weaver is at a financial disadvantage when it comes to getting his message out.
The most recent campaign finance reports on file with the S.C. Ethics Commission showed him with $6,000, including a $5,000 loan, compared to Jackson’s $15,350.
But Jackson also owes $15,000 in late filing penalties, based on three counts of failure to file quarterly reports in 2011 and 2012, director Herbert Hayden said.
Green said the way Jackson and Washington have handled the Hopkins situation reflects poorly on their leadership. Both could face trouble at the polls, she said, Jackson in November and Washington in two years.
“It doesn’t matter what party you belong to, we just know that as a community we deserve better,” she said.
“This isn’t going to blow over.”