Community coffee sessions provide informal public forum in Port Royal

emoody@beaufortgazette.comMarch 30, 2012 

Andy Corriveau, chairman of the City of Port Royal design and review board chats with councilman Joe Lee, right, and Hilton Head Island town manager Steve Riley, back right, Wednesday afternoon during Java with Joe at The Shed in Port Royal. The weekly gathering organized by Lee allows for an informal way to discuss community issues and events.

SARAH WELLIVER

Port Royal Councilman Joe Lee became $2 richer this week when residents paid him a penny for the thoughts he'd shared over the last 200 Java with Joe community get-togethers.

"Don't spend it all in one place," John Ellerbe said with a laugh as he handed Lee an envelope with a stiff $2 bill at The Shed in Port Royal.

During the 200 weekly coffees over the past four years, community members have lobbied to get a deaf neighbor safety equipment and to keep the town's 100-year-old elementary school open.

"It's a fabulous forum for people to come and bring issues up," resident Sally Germer said. "You don't have to stand up in front of council. It's a very non-threatening environment."

Port Royal Elementary School principal Jo Shirley agrees that the informal setting is what makes the meetings successful. The Java with Joe crew was active in the successful fight last summer to keep Port Royal Elementary open in the face of budget cuts, she said.

"If you have a forum like that where people are very comfortable and feel able to talk, it's just wonderful," she said. "That's the beauty of a small town, even though Port Royal isn't such a small town anymore."

The sessions were held at the Olde Town Coffeehaus until it closed in 2011. Residents Jim and Patty Crower suggested the group meet at St. Mark's Sunday School room on Paris Avenue.

The sessions are 7:30 to 9:30 a.m. on the first three Wednesdays of the month, and 5:30 to 7:30 p.m. on the fourth Wednesday. Wine sometimes replaces coffee during the evening sessions, which are scheduled to accommodate those who can't come to the morning gatherings.

Occasionally, guest speakers talk about current events or issues.

Much of the group is a mix of familiar faces in Port Royal, residents who are involved in a variety of committees and events. Lee says about 20 people attend each gathering.

Complications can arise, however.

For example, Councilman Tom Klein frequently attends, so if one other councilman tags along, Lee has a quorum on his hands. In such an instance, open-meeting laws take effect.

That happened for the first time Wednesday, when three of the five council members -- Lee, Klein and Vernon DeLoach -- attended, Lee said. That quorum, plus the discussion of the Port of Port Royal development, could be considered a public meeting.

Lee has long sent meeting notices to those on an email list and has placed a sign outside the meeting place at least a day in advance. However, state law specifies notices of town council meetings should be posted at Town Hall.

Lee said Klein is the only council member who receives emails about the coffees, and he does not anticipate having a quorum again. If that becomes an issue, he said he will stop holding the coffees.

But unless that becomes a problem, Java with Joe will continue, and Lee is on his way to earning another penny for his thoughts this Wednesday.

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