Aiken City Council often deals with significant issues that require leadership and courage. These decisions impact the entire community. Changing an ordinance established to create a safe community environment is presently facing the Council. Council is not alone in dealing with divisive issues. Governmental bodies at every level are being questioned and challenged. Those with vested interests are pulling them in different directions. From the presidency to city councils, portions of the public have lost confidence in the motives of those who govern them. Is it any wonder that they often falter in the face of the many constituencies they represent?
A book written by President Kennedy titled "Profiles in Courage" describes acts of bravery and integrity by eight U.S. Senators who defied the opinions of their party and constituents to do what they felt was right and suffered severe criticism and losses in popularity because it. That was 60 years ago and today we are hard pressed to find a profile in courage at any political level. Forget a profile, we can't even find a shadow.
Major media, cable media, print media and social media provide constant reminders of the gridlock, inaction not for the greater good but for self-preservation, the kick-the-can-down-the-road and the dead-on-arrival mentality at every level of government, from school boards to presidential offices. It's all about election and reelection.
Constituents demand action on gun safety/gun control without even being able to agree on what the effort should be called. The action demanded on comprehensive immigration solutions/border security is, likewise, subject to being identified one way or the other based on political persuasion. The politicians themselves respond by pointing the finger at "the other side" as the culprits, or they look to lobbyists to craft a message that ensures that they will not be blamed. Politicians often use their constituents as convenient shields, hiding behind what they say the voters want. When pressed to solve a problem, they simply leave the issues for the next legislative session or another agency.
What they do and don't do in this regard often has unintended consequences. For example, when former U.S. Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., changed the rules to allow for a simple majority vote as opposed to the 60-vote requirement for cloture, he did not foresee that that would allow the Republicans to push through two Supreme Court appointees, but that is indeed what happened.
Political bodies do as little as possible, a cynical strategy that can insure reelection. They won't take any risks in proposing – let alone voting for – legislation that may put them in an unfavorable light. They feel validated when they watch the new political debates and witness one candidate after another being pilloried for a vote cast decades ago. They don't have the courage or conviction to say, "Yes, I voted for that then, given the pulse of my constituents or because the tenor of the times compelled me to do so, but I have evolved in my position and would vote differently today." Instead, they apologize and "admit" to being wrong. Their handlers have told them focus groups have determined that that is the best tactic. To actually do something, or to propose something that has not been vetted in focus groups, or requires articulation of a position, a hoped for result, a defense of a position; in short that requires a thought process, is beyond their ability.
When they campaign, they tout their leadership qualities. When they win elections, they become followers, following the lead of their constituents, following the polls, following the party, following the president.
We witness this trend from the highest to the lowest levels of government and in our own community. It is a microcosm of the nation as a whole. There are several recent examples. The continuing saga surrounding the fate of the old Aiken hospital and the incredible debacle of the seemingly never-ending construction on Silver Bluff Road are two good examples.
The fate of the old Aiken hospital has been in limbo for years since the county moved out without a manageable plan of what to do with the soon-to-be-vacated building. Since then, the finger pointing, conceptual plans approved and then disapproved, the historical society involvement, the county and city involvement and the general confusion have yet to maximize the value of the property.
The Silver Bluff Road project rivaled the seemingly endless construction on the Pennsylvania Turnpike, notwithstanding the fact that the turnpike is the most heavily traveled road in America and is 360 miles long, while the construction on Silver Bluff dealt with an upgraded stretch of road less than 3 miles long. Nearly three years has been spent on this "complicated" construction project requiring such supposed difficulties as black top, curbs, drain pipes and painted lines, as well as fiber optic lines for new traffic signals (which someone appears to have failed to plan for).
The latest and ongoing local example involves the issues surrounding a proposed deer cull within the Woodside development, made to somehow appear much larger and more pressing than it really is. The real complexity here for the decision makers is how to negotiate the various positions and factors on which the decision will be based without jeopardizing the seat a particular decision maker holds.
Woodside Plantation has a long history as a gated community now hosting four golf courses within two clubs. More than 30 years ago, the original Woodside developed followed by The Reserve in the early 2000s. The original section contained some 2 acre lots and others of .33 acres, all set within large wooded areas, with attention having been paid to leaving much of the timber intact. The Reserve was divided into more lots of .25 acres and a development plan that entailed stripping much of the indigenous forests. The two golf courses that are part of the Woodside Plantation Country Club and the two at the Reserve stripped much of the forests as well. Of course, this upset the balance between development and wildlife.
The deer population has fewer areas to forage and deer are sometimes seen in the newly populated areas and at times feed on the plantings of the residents. While there have been few reported incidents of vehicular collisions or other significant disruptions, it is the tasty feed stock provided by the residents’ plantings that have prompted the call for a truly final solution to the "problem": kill some of the deer.
Based on resident complaints, the Woodside Plantation Property Owners Association reinitiated a vote (an earlier one had failed to get garner a majority). In the recent vote, there were slightly more than 2,000 votes cast, and the "yes" votes (to kill some deer) won by 584 votes. The battlelines have thus been drawn. The POA declared that an overwhelming majority voted for the cull and proceeded with plans to have sharpshooters get the job done. But, not so fast. It turns out that a long-standing ordinance does not allow for firearms (or other weapons) to be discharged within the city limits.
Not to be deterred, the POA sought permission from City Council to conduct the cull. Citing the ordinance, the City Council denied the request. Still undeterred, the POA, based presumably on the "overwhelming" 584 winning majority, requested an amendment to the ordinance. The Council could have refused to act on this request, but rather than raise the ire of a small portion of the community, they conspired, with the help of the city attorney, to prepare an amendment to the ordinance that will be voted upon on Sept. 9.
This is a clear example of our elected officials who are following and not leading. Instead, they are reacting to the squeaky wheel. They have failed to recognize that the amendment may set in motion a precedent that may have unintended consequences.
This raises yet another point, that is, many city residents are unaware of the controversy and thus have not realized that this is not just a Woodside issue. The amendment is for the entire city. Most people in the city, outside of Woodside, have not yet had a say in the matter. Do the opinions of the rest of the community matter?
City Council should not, and must not, abrogate its responsibility to the state. They are simply passing along the responsibility so they will be viewed as being responsive to their constituents without having been the ones who made the permit decision. They can wash their hands of the issue, and, when a potential tragedy occurs – because a sharpshooter was not so sharp or a wounded animal runs into the path of a vehicle – they can point a finger at the state for granting the permit.
Where does it end? When will our elected officials begin to emulate the “Profiles in Courage” written by JFK?
When will elected officials begin to lead and not follow the loudest voice?
The unintended consequence of courage may be that you lose the next election, but you can at least set an example for your children and grandchildren and show your community that you value your principles and the good of the community more you value your position.
Just say no. We won't amend an ordinance designed to provide a safe environment that may erode safety.