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From the Editor: Hat Throwers be Damned

by Lisa Ellison

As the field of candidates in November’s municipal election takes shape, a local editorial cartoon reminded me how thankless a job serving on city council is. The cartoon shows two rings. The mayor’s cowboy hat sits alone in the one labeled “mayor,” while a slew of hats occupies the “city council” ring. Most of the hat-personalities are reasonably apt: Terry Boardman, a long-time sports fan and advocate for youth athletics, gets a baseball cap; Rick Smiley, a Panama hat; there’s a boater’s hat for P.J. Connelly; a fisher’s hat for Marion Blackburn and a cloche hat for Kandie Smith. Calvin Mercer, however, gets a chicken hat and is shown diving into the “city council” ring at the last minute.

Is it cowardice that made Mercer run for re-election to his at-large seat instead of the mayor’s seat? Maybe so. But that he (or anyone) is willing to run for anything is something we should appreciate instead of ridicule.

We should appreciate that there are people willing to step forward at all. But we shouldn’t stop with just appreciating them, then tune out. If we don’t engage with these people who end up in charge of the city, they’re left with just the input of crackpots and the vested interests.

Curious about just what kinds and the degrees of pressure a city councilor faces, I asked district 4 councilor Smiley to tell me a little about his own experience. During a nearly hour-long phone conversation, Smiley said most of D4’s concerns are things like drainage and roads; there’s not much of a policing problem in his district. Of course, he can’t speak for the issues in all districts, but his sense is that in D5, Rick Croskery hears nearly identical things. Smith, he said, talks about getting a lot of emails concerning buses and crime from her D1 constituents, while Blackburn gets comments from residents, often from outside of her district (3), concerned with causes like animal welfare and environmental matters.

Smiley told me that on some days, most of his mail comes from the two or three people he hears from nearly every day. These are usually about code enforcement, diversity or pay issues. He added that his November challenger, Boardman, sends him a lot of e-mail, most recently about the Greenville Utilities Commission’s new rate schedule.

Aside from the regulars, most communication comes from people with specific issues: “Something is wrong with the street they live on, water is not draining correctly, they want a speed bump or traffic light.” Smiley says he works with city staff to make sure these issues are addressed, and added that some of the issues are out of his purview—if it’s a state road, for instance, the city has no control over its condition or whether it gets traffic signals.

For chronic issues which have persisted for months or years, Smiley said he tries “to make sure I understand their history and the status, then reconfirm the connections between citizens and the involved staff members.” He sees much of his job as “trying to be a good-faith advocate for citizens when they have problems with the city.”

“Sometimes it’s just continuing to follow up with city staff on their progress,” Smiley said. He told me about one neighborhood that’s trying to calm their traffic. “I email the neighborhood representatives and city staff every week or two to make sure the process is moving along.” Another neighborhood in Smiley’s district lies beside a city project that’s been going on for months. “I regularly request updates on progress and the steps to come—copying neighborhood leaders on the replies.”

City employees will sometimes contact him with requests, like raises. Smiley told me he refers such concerns to the city’s human resources channels. “Members of city council should work through the city manager; it’s her job to manage city staff,” he said.

I was particularly interested in hearing what kinds of business pressures are placed upon city councilors. Smiley said developers and nearby property owners will contact him to explain what they want prior to a council vote. He rarely sees people advocating for business interests that aren’t their own. He says he has never been offered a bribe and has never seen evidence of bribery directed toward other council members.

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