By Gregg Bragg, The Island Connection Staff Writer
The pledge began at 2:04p.m. on April 7 and the extra few minutes would come in handy after what would end up being a three hour meeting. Those familiar with pop culture icon Gilligan’s Island know tiny ships can get tossed in the time it took for Kiawah’s town council to conduct its meeting. Minutes required some tweaks before being approved. The stormy metaphor proved apt since citizens comments began under partly cloudy skies.
Kiawah resident Dennis McGill began his contribution with some questions about transparency and the minutes TOKI had just finished approving. “I noticed the minutes from March 4 don’t include any of the comments or questions asked [by residents]. It only includes the mayor’s comments, not anything else,” said McGill. The meeting had been the wrap-up of another round of forensic audits.
The detailed review showed two former employees were paid a revised total of over $200,000 more than intended while at least four current employees were paid over $90,000 beyond approved levels.
Council was asked some very piercing questions which were not reflected in the minutes. McGill extended his observations to include minutes of a meeting held on March 8. “There is no indication why [TOKI] accepted a bid of $40,000 instead of the low bid of $18,000 [to rework the town’s website]. We can’t count on The Island Connection to make it to every meeting. This is not complete, it is not open and it is not transparent,” he concluded.
Town administrator Stephanie Tillerson was first to respond for the town, saying residents were welcome to come and listen to the full tapes of the meeting.
Her response was quickly followed by the mayor, who claimed the town had “wide latitude” regarding what to include in the minutes. “Nothing suggests the minutes have to be a verbatim account,” he said.
Wendy Kulick was next in line and addressed her comments to the correspondence item on the agenda.
“I recently learned that Kiawah Island Utility was sold to South West Water Company, an out of state utility operator in early March. The 2005 Development Agreement between KRA and the Town states in Section 14(b)(2) that the Utility must ‘negotiate first with the Town and allow the Town to make the first purchase offer, before seeking purchase proposals from other persons [along with the rest of the ordinance]…’ Kulick said.
“On March 2, 2016, the State Public Service Commission approved the Utility’s application for expedited consideration and approval to enter into an amended and restated Utility Service Agreement and waiver of hearing, both seemingly designed to keep this transaction from the public eye.
“Please correct me if I am wrong, but if the Utility complied with the requirements of the 2005 Development Agreement, the Town was notified of its intent to sell well in advance of the consummation of the transaction and the current application to the PSC. Assuming the Town knew of the intent to sell and decided not to make an offer, when was this issue discussed and decided? This issue has not been on the agenda for the public portions of Town Council meetings at any time in the last six months and there has been no suggestion the matter was being discussed in Executive Sessions. Why has this matter not been made public before now, and does the process by which the sale was consummated violate the terms of the Development Agreement? If the Utility did not have written correspondence with the Town Council and if the sale is in violation of the Development Agreement, is the transaction legal?” asked Kulick.
Purchase of the utility had been on the town’s radar as recently as the 2015 retreat (see The Island Connection article ‘TOKI Retreats to Set Agenda’). However the mayor responded that several attempts to purchase KIU in the past constituted and exhausted TOKI’s “Right of First Offer.” Councilmember Labriola adding that monthly meetings with [KP] hadn’t revealed any concrete plans and TOKI had only been aware of the sale for a few days. Further, he also felt TOKI had previously exercised its rights but passed more because of the convoluted details the purchase would have represented than the price of the asset.
Bruce Stemerman, chair of the Kiawah Island Community Association, was next with a pitch for the Kiawah Island Motoring Retreat. He is also co-chair of the Retreat, along with TOKI councilmember Wilson and was presenting council with a framed poster of this year’s retreat to thank the town for its $90,000 support of the event, which will benefit several local charities.
Steven Traynum was the final presentation before council business began. Traynum works for Coastal Science Engineering, the firm which has presided over Kiawah’s beach nourishment program. He was in chambers to present the complete annual beach report for 2015. The presentation is available at town hall but the summarized good news is “we’re healthier than we were in 1999,” said Traynum. He emphasized the point Kiawah continues to accrete sand, in the aggregate, and CSE will continue to monitor trouble spots.
Councilmember Weaver addressed the first item of new business, saying the Ways & Means committee had approved $9,000 per year for a “subscription” to the AirMedCare network. The helicopter transportation service provider has agreed to take Kiawah residents to medical facilities when needed, and limit their charges to whatever the passenger’s insurance will pay. The service represents efforts to mitigate delays encountered with transportation provided by Charleston County Emergency Medical Services. This measure will work its way through TOKI’s normal process for full approval.
WK Dickson won unanimous approval to continue its work improving drainage along the parkway.
The next three items of new business dealt with the new municipal complex and were listed separately, but were actually a package deal. Councilmember Labriola introduced the topic by noting 2016 was an election year for TOKI and the municipal complex would still be in the process of construction.
Appointments to the committee, updating the charter and selection of a project manager are essential to continuity, said Labriola. He was trying to anticipate every contingency, including the possibility of new players on town council, but didn’t count on the ensuing debate.
“I don’t understand the grand plan, here. Do we mean for new people to undo what has been decided?” asked councilmember Johnson, stating cosmetic and landscaping concerns had yet to be addressed.
Labriola reminded the room there had been a public hearing and both the Municipal Complex committee and the county had approved the landscaping.
Councilmember Wilson chimed in to say anything which deviated from the established $9.250 million ceiling would constitute a change order and have to go before council. Concerns faded after a protracted debate and all items were unanimously approved with Johnson recusing herself from voting on committee members. Cedrus Development will be paid $18,900 to be the town’s eyes and ears on the endeavor.
Councilmember Wilson, reporting for the budget committee, said a workshop has been scheduled with an external auditor.
Councilmember Johnson reported two new bob-kittens had been found and reported by the environmental committee and announced the group’s next meeting date. Arts Council is winding down for the year with two Spoleto events, one in each May and June. She had also attended a Board of Governors meeting on behalf of the town again this year.
Councilmember Weaver said the public safety committee had formed an ad hoc group to study fire prevention, including:
1. Assessing the implications of past fires
2. Checking existing town ordinances in search of opportunities for improvement
3. Looking for high impact educational opportunities (e.g. sprinklers and remote monitoring)
4. Determining if the town has the right to regulate rental properties
The results will be known later this year and will be used to update the Comprehensive Emergency Plan.
The town administrator gave her report through a number of staff surrogates who attended the meeting. Damaged boardwalks are still being addressed as are trash receptacles on the beach. Revised schedules for picking up the trash are being floated. The boat abandoned on the east end of the island has been removed.
The mayor reported a zoning change for the existing municipal building he thinks will provide the community association with some latitude. The facility is currently designated “community support” and will be changed to “commercial.” The update will prevent the site from being used as a sewage drying field, for example, allowed by the current classification.
He continued his report saying he and Mayor Ron Ciancio of Seabrook had collaborated on a letter to Charleston County Council Chairman Elliott Summey asking for help with area roads. “We’ve waited long enough.
We need more than promises and a plan,” said the mayor, forcefully summarizing the intent of the letter. Dennis McGill was first in line for the second round of citizens’ comments.
McGill filed a lawsuit against TOKI alleging Freedom of Information Act violations in June, 2015. He seemed frustrated by the lack of a settlement he expected the ratification of this very meeting. He undertook the case at his own expense, accepted TOKI’s choice of mediator. The mediator, in turn, had recently negotiated a settlement and McGill called on TOKI and their attorney to make it official.
Wendy Kulick was next saying she had noticed Paul Roberts’ transportation report posted on the Town’s website on March 1, 2016. She wanted to know who commissioned the report, when, and if it was town council, why the report was not discussed at the March 1 town council meeting. Kulick was told no money had exchanged hands for the report.
Kulick observed the mayor [at the last town council meeting] had directed the town’s lawyer to follow up with the U.S. Attorney’s office regarding alleged embezzlement. “Why has it taken so long for any action to be taken against the two former employees?” asked Kulick.
She then suggested a “treasurer’s report” be added to town council meetings. The report would compare expenses to the annual budget, improve transparency and make it far more difficult for embezzlement to occur in the future.
Kulick closed out her comments by raising the same question about the minutes from the March 4 meeting mentioned earlier. “If a member of the public came to Town Hall to read these minutes, he or she would have no idea what questions were asked and what responses were provided,” she said. ”The Town’s code states responses will be provided in two weeks, whenever possible, and the mayor has stated responses will be provided within 30 days. Clearly neither of those time frames has been honored,” said Kulick.
Dave DeStefano thanked council for his assignment to the Municipal Complex committee. Art Morgenstern confirmed the sale of the utility and asked what the sale price was but details of the private transaction were not available. There was no executive session scheduled and the meeting adjourned.