Warren Bolton

Bolton: Traditional Lexington County making progress

WITH LEXINGTON County Council poised to pass a stiff workplace smoking ban several weeks ago - something that wouldn't have happened in the conservative county a decade before - I asked the council's chairwoman if that denoted a sea change in the county.

After all, when elected leaders in a conservative, traditional county that once would not have hesitated in deferring to restaurant and bar owners - the marketplace - instead stands up to fierce opposition and adopts a smoking ban, that's noteworthy.

But Chairwoman Debbie Summers said the slim 5-4 margin by which the ban would eventually pass wasn't strong enough to suggest any substantive ideological or philosophical shift. It was simply that a small majority believed it was time to protect workers, she said.

Taken alone, perhaps the slim vote doesn't represent dramatic change. But take a closer look at activity in the county - mostly on the council's part, but also on the part of voters - over the past decade, and it's evident there has been a gradual, noticeable shift in Lexington County. Considering its traditionalist leanings, Lexington has become quite progressive, in the best sense of the word.

Does that mean Lexington County is becoming more (here's where conservatives should take a collective gulp) liberal? No, it hasn't left its conservative, frugal roots, by any stretch. Council members still don't like raising taxes unless it's absolutely necessary. They just recently nixed a minimal levy that would have gone to beef up night ambulance service; instead they raised ambulance user fees.

The council never has given in to the lure of a 2 percent tax on restaurant food just to generate more revenue, as Columbia and Richland County have.

There's even a 14-square-mile area in the county that remains without zoning because the folks in the area want to be left alone, and the council doesn't want to tell those private citizens what to do with their land. (The area needs to be zoned - both to protect residents from encroaching, potentially incompatible, development and to ensure that all citizens play by the same rules.)

But Lexington is no longer a closed shop dominated almost exclusively by Republican men who act out of political expediency. Its elected leaders, while still largely male and white, are more open-minded, bolder and more focused on addressing growing needs than ever before.

Much of the change is out of necessity. Lexington County is growing fast, and its population is changing. Many new residents from other climes are moving to the county because of its attractive school districts, among other things. They're bringing their own ideas, their own preferences, increased service demands and increasingly new voting patterns.

Don't just take my word for it that change is in the air. Consider some of the things that have occurred in recent years - some landmark political moments, others policy changes - that wouldn't have happened a decade ago.

- Ms. Summers herself is Exhibit A. In 2004, she became the first woman elected to the council since the 1970s. In 2007, she became the first female officer on the council, and this year she was elected chair.

- Three years ago, the County Council hired Katherine Hubbard as county administrator, making her the first woman to serve in that position.

- In 2007, party regulars elected Katrina Shealy chair of the Lexington County Republican Party, making her the first woman in 35 years to hold the post.

- For two consecutive years, in 2007 and 2008, Councilman Billy Derrick, a Democrat, served as chairman of the otherwise Republican County Council. Mr. Derrick was the first Democrat in 24 years to be chairman. That's saying something in a county that is one of the most Republican in the South. Council Republicans chose Mr. Derrick despite the fact that some county GOPers didn't like the notion of it.

- The county will sponsor a summit next month to explore its transit needs. For years, it has resisted efforts by Columbia and Richland County to get it to support the Midlands' public bus system. But growth and pollution concerns dictate that the county do something; instead of stubbornly saying no, the county is doing its homework, which could lead to yet more collaboration with Columbia and Richland.

- In 2007, the county passed a law significantly restricting outdoor burning, which Lexington County residents engaged in twice as often as those in any other S.C. county. While the practice might have been accepted when the county was largely rural, it had grown less desirable and more dangerous due to development in the fast-growing county.

This shift in attitude - or culture - in Lexington County can be traced back as far as 2001. The council at that time approved a joint agreement with Columbia and Richland County to build a convention center. And it did so despite pressure to the contrary from two state lawmakers - particularly then-Sen. Joe Wilson.

Also in 2001, the council took the prudent, responsible step of rescinding a self-imposed spending limit that required voters to approve tax increases for routine spending. The spending limit was adopted out of political expediency: Tax relief advocates were vocal and powerful in the '90s and made it clear that those who didn't toe the line wouldn't be re-elected. But in adopting the spending cap, the council had abdicated its responsibility to lead and hampered its ability to deal responsibly with growth.

Since removing the cap, the council has had to raise taxes but only slightly and responsibly. It's gotten little or no pushback; in the '90s even the mention of a tax increase drew murmurings of a revolt.

That's a clear sign that not only has the leadership's mind-set changed, but so has the people's.