Lexington, SC (Paul Kirby) – Several of Lexington County’s council members are publicly voicing their concern after a local newspaper recently described them as politically polarized. The article also described four of the councilmembers as reformers, a word several other members say is used when things need drastic change. In the majority’s opinion, and in the opinion of several of the members listed as the reformers, that’s not an accurate description at all. Most say there is no reformer clique, just members who at times disagree and debate issues passionately.
Several issues of concern have come before the council that have caused sometimes lively debates. This, one member said, is what’s supposed to happen; it’s the way governments operate. According to Councilman Scott Whetstone of Council District 1, there is no power struggle going on between the council’s members. According to Whetstone, the statement made in the media that said there is a 5-4 split of the nine-member council is false. “We are nine people with nine different personalities and opinions. Do we disagree and debate yes we do, that's what we were elected to do,” Whetstone said recently.
Likewise, Councilman Darrell Hudson said, “We are not polarized at all. When an issue arises, we debate it, sometimes we agree and other times we disagree, we vote, and we move on.” Hudson said he thinks that the record of votes that can be found on the county’s website will prove that the council agrees in the end more than they disagree. Hudson said he is not a member of a clique, votes what he thinks is right for his district on each issue and didn’t like being lumped into any specific group like the so-called reformers caucus in a letter recently distributed by fellow Councilman Ned Tolar of District 8. Hudson said he was, “livid” when he saw the letter that targeted certain incumbent members and asked for donations for their challengers that included his name, albeit misspelled. “I had nothing to do with that letter,” Hudson said. “I certainly would have spelled my name correctly and I didn’t run aiming at a target at anyone’s back. I ran on the issues of improving our emergency services, cutting housing density through zoning changes, and making plans for smart growth,” Hudson said. “Certainly, to say that we have things we still need to change and improve is fair, but everyone can get better.” Hudson said he will continue to disagree at times because he’s passionate about what he believes. He also said he will do what the voters hired him to do. “If it’s a road problem, a dog problem, a cat problem, even trash, I will do my best to make sure it’s taken care of if it’s the county’s responsibility. If it’s not ours, I’ll find out whose it is and head the constituent in that direction. One way or the other, I aim to get results, to get the problems of any size fixed. That’s what the voters hired me for.”
One candidate for county council said when we asked if he was upset that his name was included in the letter even when it asked that people donate for him without his consent. He said to say he was a "bit upset is a gross understatement. Simply put, I was furious!” He said he had spoken with Councilman Tolar about the issue and he answered by saying, “Yes I spoke with Ned and I believe my displeasure was clearly evident.” When asked about Tolar’s response when confronted he said, "Ned responded like a gentleman."
The same article in the news also referenced no-bid contracts that favor certain vendors. That is ludicrous according to councilman Whetstone. “As for no bid contracts, all the bid information and contracts are available online for anyone to see,” Whetstone said. Likewise, Councilman Todd Cullum said that the person who made those accusations is simply uninformed. “By county ordinance, any purchase over $25,000 has to have three bids. That is followed 100% of the time. We sometimes have sole source contracts and that’s because only one vendor can provide the services we require. If someone else can provide a like service, they are welcome to make a proposal and bid on those contracts. Those are voted on and the votes for approval of those have been unanimous for as long as I can remember without going back and pulling the minutes. If one councilman is saying that this practice is wrong, or we have hidden something, he’s doing political grandstanding and is just lying to the people he represents.” Council Chairperson Debbie Summers also said she can’t recall any instances of sole-sources contracts being awarded over the past four years that had any dissenting votes. “I haven’t checked the actual records,” Summers said, “but I don’t recall any one of the nine council members voting no on one in a long time if at all.” All pointed out that the minutes of council meetings are on the county’s website. If you want to know how a specific councilperson voted, you can go through the on-line minutes and see.
The article also mentioned that Councilman Ned Tolar has called into question whether fee-in-lieu of tax deals to attract development should be made public throughout the process. He said that he felt this is a way to preserve “transparency” in government according to the paper. Other council members say that’s ridiculous and would ruin deals or cause incentive packages to have to be enriched, a very costly move. “We are competing with our property inventory with Atlanta, Raleigh, areas in Texas, and even internationally to attract businesses here,” one councilman said. “If you were to ever tip your hand in these negotiations, those other places vying for the same businesses would simply sweeten their pot until someone blinked. When you’re dealing in the amount of investments that we are trying to bring to Lexington County, we have to hold our cards close to the vest or we will pay dearly in the long run.” Councilmembers also pointed out that state law allows for these economic negotiations behind closed doors for a reason. “Many times, we simply are approached by an agent of a multi-million dollar business who doesn’t even reveal to us who they are. If a company reveals who they are up front, the fight is on to take them somewhere else. Hundreds of places across the US want these businesses for a reason. They are hugely important to making counties a great place. We negotiate with them in secret but believe me when I say we live for the day we can stand in front of a crowd and announce that some big company is coming to Lexington County, investing hundreds of millions, and bringing hundreds of high paying jobs here for our residents.”
Councilman Scott Whetstone said that once an industry announces it has chosen Lexington County to invest its millions, their fee-in-lieu of tax (FILOT) breaks are also easily available to find along with who voted and how. “When it comes to FILOT agreements, to the best of my memory I can't remember any since I came into office not receiving council's full support,” Whetstone said in a text message.
Once again, Lou Kennedy and Nephron seemed to be a target of Councilman Ned Tolar and the media that appeared to support Tolar’s claims that Nephron’s and its CEO Lou Kennedy’s deal was somehow nefarious or under the table. In Whetstone’s comments regarding that, he said, “Regarding Mrs. Lou Kennedy's name being dragged out, I will say this. Lou Kennedy has been a great supporter and asset to this county as her company also has. It is outlandish that such a great supporter of this county got drug into this when she did nothing wrong.” Kennedy did make a donation to the SC Republican Party and some of that ended up being given to Tolar's opponent. He ended up receiving $5,000 of her donation. The article in the news mistakenly listed as $50,000 when it was far less. Most we spoke with said that they hoped that was a typo by the paper and not another attempt to discredit Kennedy.
The council chairperson Debbie Summer pointed out that they can’t just give away the moon to entice business. “We have state laws that limit the incentives we offer. We are bound by that and common sense,” Summers said. “We work hard to entice multi-million dollar investments because they bring so much with them. They bring high paying jobs, many like Lou Kennedy (Nephron) are unbelievable givers who donate to all sorts of community causes, and as they are added to the tax rolls, they pay a large portion of the operational expenses of the schools, county, and other services the county citizens receive.” Lexington County has low unemployment, schools that have been ranked as some of the best in the country by national publications, a high median income, great recreational opportunities with world-class facilities, and of course Lake Murray. The emergency services are ranked by associations like the American Heart Association with their GOLD standard, the fire service has seen an increase in their performance rating which lowers insurance cost, and an internationally accredited sheriff’s department. Last year we even saw a decrease in county taxes for the first time in decades; School taxes are in no way controlled by the county council. Certainly, there are issues like dirt roads and traffic that need to be addressed, but the council says that they are working together and with other agencies to fix those without unduly burdening the taxpayers.
To sum all this up, all the council members we were able to contact said that the county and the council is working as it should. It has nine council members that are people and they represent people. Most of all, they are working to keep Lexington County the great place it is. “Our quality of life here is great, and the council is working to keep it that way,” Chairperson Summers said. “All these people are coming here because it’s such a great place. We have to continue to work together as the county’s leaders to keep it great and become even greater!”
Another councilmember said that if one member wants to pull political tricks to get on the front page of the paper close to the election, that’s just one member. “We can’t let one member’s political ploys paint the other eight as polarized,” he said. “We hope that everyone will put the political tricks aside and help the rest of us work for the greater good. Who serves is up to the people who vote; just remember that those voters are smart people and smoke and mirrors don’t get anything done, there [sic] just that, smoke and mirrors. Perhaps one member is trying to sway the people with untruths and tricks. Tell the truth, the voting records are on the website. If you were ever opposed to something the council was doing, you should have voted no. That same record shows who voted no on a tax break that would have lowered taxes in his area last year, the first tax decrease in county taxes in years. It’s all on line. Check it for yourself.”
Councilman Ned Tolar was sent e-mails to his addresses of record regarding the issues in this piece earlier last week. As of Sunday, he had not responded. He was not able to participate in last Thursday’s public forum organized by the CWC Chamber of Commerce with his political challengers because of a personal emergency.