Mere weeks ago, the mayor of Beaufort complained that Beaufort County Council was "unfair" when it decided not to conduct a bond referendum on whether to increase the sales tax to pay for a list of capital projects.
Most County Council members asserted that the process was too rushed, among other problems.
Ironically, city officials now urge a deliberate pace as its council considers its own referendum -- a proposal by the Burton-Dale-Beaufort NAACP branch to elect City Council members by district, rather than in at-large elections, as is the current practice. The NAACP's hope is that switching to districts will increase the likelihood of the election of an African-American candidate in a city that is nearly 30 percent black -- but has not had a black council member since Fred Washington Jr., who served from 1979 to 1993.
City officials' argument to slow the process overlooks that its referendum entails a simpler (albeit deeply philosophic) question than the one the county considered. And it has been under consideration since at least November -- months longer than the sales tax proposal rejected by County Council.
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Still, city attorney Bill Harvey cautions his council not to proceed without first hearing from the public, "so we don't get accused of ramrodding something through."
Harvey's advice sounds reasonable but is offered in this context: State law could be interpreted to mean the city must submit referendum language to the S.C. Election Commission by Aug. 15 for the question to appear on November's general-election ballot.
Delay, therefore, might be tantamount to rejection. If council stalls on placing the measure on the ballot, they avoid having to make a tough decision about the city's future.
Harvey notes that City Council is scheduled to meet only once, on Monday, before the Aug. 15 deadline, leaving no time for both public input and council approval. In a further ironic twist, Harvey has indicated that when council discusses the referendum at that meeting, it will do so in closed session.
That's right -- Harvey would lock out of the discussion the very public he advises the council to heed. Those aims are incompatible. The public's business should be conducted in public.
Neither should the time frame excuse the council from making a decision on this matter. The referendum would not ask voters to pick a specific districting plan; it would simply determine if there should be a districting plan.
Should the answer be yes, details can be settled later, in what should be the product of a deliberative and public process.
For those who want some idea what districting would look like before voting in a referendum, maps prepared by the NAACP and vetted by a state demographer have been available for weeks.
Moreover, there is ample time between now and November to debate the merits of districting -- about as much time, in fact, as Beaufort County needed to craft a $221 million capital-projects list that city officials would have advanced post haste.