By Gregg Bragg, The Island Connection Staff Writer
Kiawah town council’s Feb. 9, 2016 meeting began on time-ish. The room was full and the agenda was, too. It included four sets of minutes for approval, which usually doesn’t take too long. Two of the meeting minutes were approved seconds after parliamentary obligations were satisfied. The remaining two items were deferred.
The primary topic addressed by residents requires an introduction. Since last August, Mayor Lipuma has mentioned the Kiawah Island Community Association’s interest in buying the existing town hall many times (consistently floating a value of $2.5 million). A TOKI appraisal of the property produced the same value, and the amount became an integral part of funding the proposed municipal complex. James Bailey, KICA COO, initially corrected the mayor’s comments saying KICA had agreed only to discuss the topic.
During opening remarks at KICA’s Jan. 27, 2016 “Meet the Candidates Night,” Bailey told attendees that the town had begun a legal process intended to invalidate the longstanding lease with KICA (view his comments here www.youtube.com/watch?v=DlSk5Aaq6C4&feature=youtu.be) following a failure to agree upon a price. Bailey later shared an email from the mayor with The Island Connection that demonstrated KICA has made sequential offers of $1, $1.5 and $1.6 million, each of which TOKI deemed were insufficient. There was a long line for citizen’s comments with Marilyn Larach in the lead off position.
“I live on Terrapin Court, Kiawah Island. As all of you are aware, I am both a citizen of TOKI and a member of KICA. On Feb. 20, 1997, TOKI and KICA signed a 20-year legal agreement governing the terms under which KICA would share this municipal building with the Town. The agreement also gave KICA the right to two additional 15-year renewals upon receipt by the Town of written notice from KICA. Notice of KICA’s intent to exercise this option for two additional 15-year renewals was delivered to the Town [2 years early] in 2014.
“For 19 years, the Town has abided by the terms of this legal agreement. KICA will have paid more than $1,000,000 to the Town by the time the initial 20-year term expires next year. Now as the Town explores ways to finance a new municipal building on its recently annexed Betsy Kerrison property, Mayor Lipuma has notified the KICA board that the Town intends to initiate a lawsuit to invalidate the original 1997 agreement.
“Since KICA has not yet been served, I urge the Town Council to reconsider this unwise decision. The Town needs to abide by the terms of its current legal agreement with KICA. If the Town wishes to sell the current municipal building, then it should enter into good faith negotiations with KICA. Good faith negotiations do not include threats of lawsuits that will be expensive for both parties and generate a great deal of adverse publicity.
“Even if the Town were to prevail in this lawsuit, a Town victory would result in massive KICA assessments that you and all of your neighbors will have to pay. Do you really think your fellow Kiawah property owners and friends will thank you for imposing this financial burden on them?”
Kiawah resident Wendy Kulick amplified Larach’s comments, asking why the town had refused to meet publicly with KICA to discuss the matter. She also asked when a vote was taken since the only time the matter had been discussed was in executive sessions, which invariably end with the disclaimer, “No votes were taken and no decisions were made that would bind the town to a course of action.”
KICA board candidate Dave DeStefano also opened with kudos to his predecessors in his comments. He informed council that Bailey had given all the candidates a heads up about the “phone call” regarding the prospective declaratory judgement, prior to them meeting voters on Jan. 27, 2016.
“If you don’t accept our final offer we’re going to sue?” asked DeStefano rhetorically. The mayor denied making such a call but DeStefano would later amend his comments saying it was details of an email from the mayor which Bailey had shared with board members, not a phone call.
Councilmember Labriola introduced the topic of Charitable Contributions by spending a moment to thank Kiawah volunteers who give so generously of their time to local schools, fire departments, clinics, TOKI committees etc. before detailing the $200,000 awarded to local charities. The South Carolina Aquarium, a newcomer to the list, was awarded $5,000, Teachers Supply Closet received $10,000 and the Kiawah Island Conservancy was granted the lion’s share of $45,000.
Councilmember Johnson pointed out KIC receives funding from other TOKI streams with a total closer to $95,000 and “just didn’t want anyone to start adding up the numbers,” and get confused. “I don’t think Kiawah gets enough credit for this [charitable giving],” Johnson concluded. The donations were approved by a unanimous vote.
The next two items of new business consisted of approving the town’s organizational chart along with both the charters and members of eight TOKI committees. Lengthy discussions of each item wrapped up with the mention of trying to improve upon announcing open committee positions. However, the last piece of new business would generate still more discussion. Town administrator Stephanie Tillerson had some cost and time saving ideas listed under the heading of Freedom of Information Act Request Rate Structure. Tillerson had paid a visit to the City of Folly Beach’s website, used their FOIA
Procedure as a template and created a new form. The information demanded of those making requests was straightforward enough, though a radical departure from the informal, hand written notes residents have become accustomed to. The hitch was her plan to charge $0.25 for each page copied, plus a charge for staff/contractor time which would include a page by page review for information requiring redaction.
“Each municipality determines ‘reasonable’ charges’,” said Tillerson adding people would be advised of the charges before incurring costs.
Councilmember Johnson began discussion of the proposal asking “What if they don’t pick it up? Then we’re out!”
Councilmember Wilson speculated requests might be reduced once salary and other routine information was posted on the town’s website but followed up by tasking Tillerson with producing a quarterly report to gauge request volume.
Councilmember Labriola ended the debate observing “Without a plan, this is just bureaucracy.” However, the decision to forge ahead and develop a procedure and fee schedule was approved.
Committee reports were more robust this month. Councilmember Wilson reported attending a transportation committee meeting where a number of ideas were floated to reduce congestion on Rt. 26. Rapid transit bus routes and a light rail system were among the concepts marked for honorable mention but without a means to fund them.
Hopes of resuscitating the completion of I526 also dimmed against a budget short fall of $300 million, with only 120 days remaining to fill the gap. Completing as much of the route as funds allowed was also nixed. He did however, mention meeting with a group from Johns Island, who support the idea of a third route off the island.
Councilmember Labriola said nine firms had applied for consideration to build the new municipal complex and the Municipal Committee had completed their evaluations. The list has been winnowed down to four firms, who will submit bids in the next week.
Responding to councilmember Weaver’s oft repeated question, Labriola confirmed an official TOKI vote on the budget for the municipal complex should be possible for next month’s meeting of town council.
Councilmember Johnson’s Arts Council report followed, noting this and the next few months were the busiest of the year for the group. She provided a review of recent events and described a slate of upcoming dates.
Johnson concluded by announcing the Environmental Committee had met and reported 5 bobcats had been collared with another six planned and Kiawah could boast 158 species of birds after their study had been completed.
Councilmember Weaver said the Public Safety meeting had been moved but was still scheduled. He also said the county’s addition of Quick Response Vehicles had reduced non-transit response times from 20 minutes to 9. The vast improvement does not reflect transportation to a hospital, which remains an open issue. Helicopter service in the range of $25,000 per ride cost has been examined in the past.
However, Weaver reported the possibility of a helicopter “subscription service,” which, if verified, would limit the cost of air transport to whatever a patient’s insurance allowed. The service, if viable, would be available to both residents and non-residents.
The town administrator’s report included mention of an idea pitched as a time saving measure. Tillerson proposed limiting the first round of citizens comments to items listed on the agenda.
The second round would remain open to any topic. “Why do we need two rounds of ‘citizen’s comments’?” asked the mayor while councilmember Weaver expressed support for the idea.
The mayor reported he and councilmember Labriola had met with KICA to set meeting parameters for discussion of the price for the existing town hall. The mayor announced Labriola would be joined by councilmember Wilson along with KICA board members Bruce Stemerman and Larry Kreyling to settle the matter and avoid litigation.
Residents will wait for the outcome to gauge the financial impact of the planned municipal complex.
Citizen’s Comments, second round
Marilyn Larach opened the second round of citizen’s comments voicing her emphatic opposition to limits on free speech. She insisted comment periods had never strained the boundaries of time limits TOKI placed on resident input. “We’re trying to present a different point of view before decisions are made,” she concluded.
Kiawah resident Virginia Abbott went where she had gone before, to the podium. “I am distressed by this proposal [Tillerson’s proposed limits on free speech].” She punctuated her point succinctly by insisting council could spare the 30 minutes to hear from the people they represent.
Wendy Kulick softened the room’s tenor when she suggested the proposed FOIA request form be named “The Wendy and Dennis [McGill] Memorial Request Form.”
Dave DeStefano chimed in from the gallery to say “they WISH it was memorial,” to the chuckled approvals of most everyone. Kulick remained resolute, however, in demanding the 28 year tradition of two unencumbered comment periods be preserved. She left the podium and council wondering why FOIA requests should incur costs of time from staff who were already on the clock.
Dennis McGill also opposed limiting comments but addressed the bulk of his final address to the subject of charges for FOIA requests. McGill said the previous town administrator had outlined charges for his many FOIA requests but had always complied and never charged him, a practice he thought should be persevered for the sake of transparency.
The meeting adjourned after council’s executive session where, once again, “No votes were taken and no decisions were made that would bind the town to a course of action.”