By Gregg Bragg, The Island Connection Staff Writer
Ask anyone around the Kiawah campfire for the last many months and they would insist the Town of Kiawah Island’s plans to build a new Town Hall were common knowledge. Ask anyone in a position to actually confirm that common knowledge and you may as well be listening to a seashell. To fully appreciate the current state of affairs, however, you have to go back to the last election.
About this time two years ago, the campaign issues candidates for Town Council ran on were the usual array of leash laws, foundering road projects and the omnipresent subject of purchasing the Kiawah Island Utility. After the spectrum of political discussion from apple pie patriotism on one end, to name-calling on the other had run its course, Kiawah had an entirely new Town Council. Its first big accomplishment was the annexation of Freshfields Village. Annexation had long been a favorite objective of Kiawah Development Partners, the previous developer on Kiawah Island.
But why did the new Council decide to annex the village? Was it because Sales and Accommodation tax money was left lying on the table the Town might as well have? Was it because some other, less-friendly public entity was eyeing-up Freshfields?
Was it the only way to avoid an outlet mall outside the gate? Did it just making selling Freshfields easier? The pitch for annexation seemed at odds with the logic behind, and necessity of, annexation. It might be different if annexation had come up during the campaign, but it didn’t. It might be different if annexation had been discussed more openly, but it wasn’t. The topic of annexation was more commonly relegated to Executive Session.
Several public meetings were ultimately held, but were seemingly “more to inform residents of the decision than ask for input. Not all property owners were satisfied their concerns had been addressed.” Kiawah resident Wendy Kulick said. And, as suddenly as it was deemed a priority, annexation was a done deal.
Executive Sessions have a place. There are personnel issues that can’t be dealt with in any other venue, and legal issues that are precluded from public consumption by law. But Executive Session is not designed to be a shield for politicians to hide behind as they make plans that will affect the voters they represent.
Since the annexation of Freshfields, additional tax money has been flowing into TOKI coffers. Kiawah is awash in money, boasting a reserve fund of $17 million dollars. Meetings of both Town Council and the Ways & Means Committee include a possibly justified amount of self-congratulations and “high five-ing.” Seventeen million dollars is a lot of money that would burn a hole in anybody’s pocket. What to do with it, and deciding on common priorities, came into sharp relief after the Council retreat to the Charleston Marriot on January 27, 2014.
The 2014 Strategic Objectives section ofthe summary from that meeting includes this statement: “Purchase property that will meet future Town needs, which may include additional parking, existing building expansion, Town Hall annex or a new municipal center.”
That seems pretty clear. But when asked on the Town’s forum why they had money for a new Town Hall while other priorities went begging, the reply from Administrative Assistant Stephanie Braswell, the unfortunate Town staffer who it seems is always around and always the one to draw the short straw of responding for the Town, said on October 3, 2014: “With regard to the ability to fund a new Town Hall, the Town of Kiawah does not have before them any formal plans to construct a new Town Hall at this time.”
However, public records obtained and available from the South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control tell a different story.
Sometime in late September or early October a sign appeared in the middle of the field Sidi Limehouse uses to grow wild flowers, just behind Rosebank Farm’s produce stand on Betsy Kerrison Parkway.
The sign suggested TOKI had made an application to DHEC. When asked by The Island Connection, DHEC representative Renea Dangerfield confirmed the sign as legitimate and the precursor to a Perk test.
Perk tests are performed to determine if a given area can accommodate a septic system. The DHEC representative supplied the full application, adding that it was available as public information.
In the application’s cover letter to DHEC dated October 2, 2014 Bill Young of Jacobs Engineering Group Inc., wrote:
“Enclosed is an Application for Permit to Construct an Individual Sewage Treatment and Disposal System for the Town of Kiawah Island at 4475 Betsy Kerrison Parkway (State Road S-10-20), Johns Island, South Carolina 29455. Jacobs Engineering Group Inc. (Jacobs) is submitting this application on behalf of the TOKI. The TOKI plans to build a new municipal campus on the site. The site is not located within the limits of an existing wastewater service area. The TOKI plans to permit and construct a septic system on the site to serve the planned municipal campus, and requests your review of the enclosed application.”
There’s more to this application. A lot more, including signatures of Town staff who use the phrase “municipal campus,” maps and “8×10 color glossy pictures with the circles and arrows.”
Ten or more months of the public being told specifically after each Executive Session of Town Council that “No votes were taken and no decisions were made” appears to have been wholly inaccurate. Perhaps the wrong questions were being asked. To address this, several people, including Kiawah resident Wendy Kulick and Johns Island resident Rich Thomas asked long lists of questions at the October TOKI Town Council meeting including:
“When did the Town purchase the property on which Rosebank Farms farm stand currently sits? How much did the Town pay for it? What does the Town intend to do with the existing Town Hall? Has the Town approached Kiawah Partners about providing additional land to the Town or KICA? Has the Town discussed the sale of the existing Town Hall property with the KICA Board of Directors or its COO?”
Mayor Lipuma replied he would get back to them in thirty days or fifteen, if the appropriate forms were filled out. With nearly a week left before those requests were mature enough to harvest, it was time to talk to the expert on all things that ripen, Sidi Limehouse.
Limehouse, owner of Rosebank Farms, has had a farm stand at the edge of John’s Island “for thirty years on this same stretch of road.” The original location “was down by the ‘Little Pig.’” He already knew some of the outstanding questions and started tossing out figures without being asked. He was just as quick to respond when asked to confirm his information.
“Oh, yeah, I know they paid $2 million for the land and are going to spend another million on the building. At least!” volunteered Limehouse without requiring a completed FOIA request.
Many from other media outlets are baffled by this affront to both the spirit and the letter of the Freedom of Information Act. If recent TOKI Town Council meetings are any indicator, everyone involved must realize questions are going to be asked, it’s just a matter of how angry people are when they pose them. However, doing something about it is another matter.
“Filing a FOIA complaint is a big proposition. The filing fee is $1,500 and you would also be required to pay for depositions and transcription-ists and elected officials on Kiawah are hiding behind that,” Rich Thomas, a resident of Johns Island, said. “The only other option is for the South Carolina Attorney General to take an interest in the case.”
The concern expressed by those who have been watching this process is the disdain for residents being exhibited by the public officials they voted for. TOKI Council has recently responded to that concern, issuing a statement on Oct. 15, 2014 to quiet the claxons being sounded.
“The Town of Kiawah Island has been evaluating the purchase of property both on and off Kiawah Island since January 2014. Property purchase would position the Town to plan for the future and address existing office and parking space limitations. As specifically permitted under state law, the Town has been handling all of the property purchase negotiations in Executive Session. The associated documents are exempt from public disclosure. All negotiations are bound by a confidentiality agreement to protect the integrity of the process.”
The statement also addresses concerns about the visibility of the process:
“With a sewer permit and completion of the due diligence process, Town Council will vote publically on the acquisition of the property. In addition, background leading to the purchase will be fully reviewed with the public.”