Charleston mayoral candidates share their views at DINA forum
When a politician is passionate about his or her city and its people, expressing ideas about improving residents’ quality of life in a 90 second timeframe can be a daunting task. Five of the six candidates for mayor, incumbent John Tecklenburg, Councilman Mike Seekings, Sheri Irwin, Councilman Gary White, and Maurice Washington, who previously served on the City Council, accepted this challenge during a Q&A session organized by the Daniel Island Neighborhood Association (DINA). Candidate Renee Orth was unable to attend.
On Monday, September 30, from 6 to 8 p.m., the pews were filled at The Church of the Holy Cross as locals gathered for the Charleston Mayoral Candidate Forum. The event, moderated by Daniel Island resident and DINA member Frank Walsh, encouraged discussion of a variety of topics ranging from broad, citywide themes to specific issues unique to Daniel Island. Participants were required to answer in 90 seconds or less. Workplace Benefits, a health insurance brokerage firm headquartered on Daniel Island, served as the meeting sponsor.
Mayor John Tecklenburg
Mayor Tecklenburg said he became enamored with Daniel Island’s master plan in the 1990s and opened the first store on the island, Tecklenburg Market & Café. He and his wife, Sandy, called Daniel Island home for ten years. When he became mayor, Tecklenburg said that he worked with council to honor the commitment that the city made to complete parks and the recreation center on the island.
Tecklenburg said he’s learned that quality of life differs from neighborhood to neighborhood. On Daniel Island, he commented, the city’s role is to “work on the nuts and bolts of everyday city services.” He continued, “We’ve added and re-striped crosswalks and along with Berkeley Country, we’ve added the new roundabout.” An analysis of road conditions has just been completed and funding has been identified for the Beresford Creek Bridge replacement, he said.
Charleston’s current mayor said that he knows the area’s priorities and, every day, aims to address the city’s three critical issues: flooding, affordable housing, and transportation. He participated in the Dutch Dialogues, a collaborative effort bringing together national and international water experts working with Charleston’s local teams to learn to “live with water.”
During his tenure, he said, he hired new leaders in the police and fire departments, and created new positions—a Stormwater Director and a Chief Resilience Officer, who joins departments together, forms teams, and coordinates projects.
Tecklenburg said he supports workforce housing and favors community policing with more officers on foot “walking a good, old-fashioned beat” when appropriate for the neighborhood.
He touted his creation of a citizen service desk with a singular phone number that residents can use for any City related question: 843-724-7311.
The core of Seekings’ leadership as mayor, he said, is to consider quality of life with every decision. If elected, he said he’d spend his first day as mayor making a list of priorities and developing a leadership plan to address the issues and report progress.
“Think about this…the City of Charleston, in the last 44 years, structurally has had zero change. We’ve done business the same way for 44 years. There are some things we can clearly do to be more efficient for you,” he said in regards to addressing quality of life issues.
“As we want to be more mobile in our community, I would immediately merge our traffic and transportation department with our planning department. I would put them together and make them work together to have plans going forward. I would also have a Director of Economic Development and have someone who would report to the mayor on a daily basis where we are with your money on large scale projects.”
Seekings noted that flooding is a collective problem citywide that impacts all citizens and “we need to focus on how we’ll finance that.” With 7.5 million visitors in Charleston per year, the City should seek out ways to generate income from tourists and obtain revenues from the cruise ships that use our harbor, he said. He said that the volume of visitors challenges city infrastructure and impacts the quality of life for residents who live here year round.
An example of innovative transportation is happening here on Daniel Island, he noted, with the private ferry service shuttling commuters downtown by boat.
“Our waterways are our opportunity,” he said.
Irwin kept her message short and focused. She said she is concerned about overdevelopment and aims to protect suburbs from being urbanized. Her platform is based on Lowcountry preservation. After attending council meetings, she said she became concerned and decided to run for mayor to protect the private property rights of every citizen.
Irwin said, “Votes should be recorded and posted on the City of Charleston website. No more voice votes. The citizens have a right to know how every city councilman votes.”
She opposes using tax dollars for private sector building. Irwin supports a head tax on cruise ship passengers to generate income for the city. She believes that neighborhoods should have a strong voice in government and that there should be a planning commission for every area. “Daniel Island should have their own commission led by their own neighbors,” she added.
White has lived on Daniel Island for 16 years and represents District 1, which includes Daniel Island, as its councilman for the past 12 years. White’s family lived in Charleston for generations and he raised his three children on Daniel Island. This gives him a unique perspective of the area, he said.
He commented that he is the only candidate supported by the majority of city council and was recently endorsed by the International Longshoreman Association.
If elected, White said his first act as mayor would be to meet with every department head to facilitate the management of the 1800 people employed by the city. Transparency is important to White: “Council members need to know that I have an open door policy. I want them to come talk to me and tell me what they need.”
His key areas of focus include flooding, growth and development, affordable housing, and traffic.
White said he helped develop the Charleston Digital Corridor, an initiative to attract and support tech businesses. He is interested in expanding an economic development department to bring more job opportunities to Charleston.
White said, “One of the things I intend to do as mayor with regards to quality of life is to make sure that as our city grows…we need to do it in a responsible way. It needs to be thoughtful. We need to have appropriate civic planning to be able to adjust our community so it doesn’t deteriorate our quality of life.”
If someone wants to invest in our community, White explained, but it doesn’t enhance our quality of life, we as a city need to learn how to say “no.”
A Charleston native, Washington’s focus is on investing in education. He said, “There is no better way to ensure our city’s future than providing our young people with opportunities to learn and grow.”
Washington served eight years on the City Council and was Chairman of the Ways and Means committee under Mayor Joe Riley.
As mayor, Washington said he would restructure the planning and zoning department to curb rapid development. He stated, “Too often we put development ahead of planning and zoning…disastrous results every time. We have to reverse that.”
Washington believes that flooding is the most critical issue for the city and addressing it goes hand in hand with zoning. To face climate threats, he claims, we need more robust land-use regulations.
“Zoning is the most powerful tool local governments have,” commented Washington, “through planning and zoning, local governments can determine what is at risk, what is safe to build, and where it is safe to build.” Funding for flood mitigation is in tact through various sources but more resources need to be identified, he said.
Washington gave a closing statement that touched on campaign spending. “I am very serious about making this election and cityhall about you and your family and your communities,” he said. “We don’t have a $500,000 or $1,000,000 budget. If every one of you had to raise $500,000 to run a campaign for mayor, how many of you would that knock out of consideration? This is local government, right? Every citizen should have a shot.”
The 90-minute forum ended with questions from the audience and closing remarks. Daniel Island resident and business owner Reese McFaddin Gately gave her impressions: “All of the candidates are aware of the issues facing Charleston: flooding, traffic and affordable housing. The progressive solutions I heard came from Mike Seekings suggesting that we tax the tourists and from Mayor Tecklenburg stating that the city has been in contact with the Netherlands and we are learning how they deal with their flooding issues and bringing their ideas to Charleston.”
When asked about his overall impression of the Mayoral Forum Ben Laaper, a Daniel Island resident and realtor, said, “Each and every candidate was well versed and prepared on the issues. Our island resident Gary White did a wonderful job and deserves our consideration.”
You can view the complete forum, at DINA’s Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/dineighborhood/.