By Jennifer Tuohy, Island Eye News Editor
Photos by Steven Rosamilia
A large crowd turned out for the Sullivan’s Island Mayor Candidates’ Forum, held on Dec. 3. The event, put on by the Charleston chapter of The League of Women Voters and sponsored in part by Island Eye News, is the only public forum to pit the three candidates, Keith Blandford, Jerry Kaynard and Patrick O’Neil, against one another. The election takes place Jan. 6, 2015.
The candidates answered questions address to all three and submitted in writing by the assembled audience, with each gentleman given 90 seconds to respond and then 30 seconds to rebut, if necessary. About 10 questions were asked in total, following each candidate giving an opening statement.
The theme of the evening emerged as government transparency with many questions being focused on citizen concerns about how town council has operated over recent big decisions for the island, specifically the building of Sullivan’s Island Elementary school and the planned Town Hall.
Both O’Neil and Kaynard, incumbent councilmembers, defended council’s record but promised to do more to encourage open government if they were elected mayor. Blandford, who has not been involved in local politics but ran for Congress twice, made his position clear. He believes in limited government and fiscal responsibility. Most of his answers to the posed questions came back to this theme: “I think the island has become very expensive for people to live here. It’s important to look at what services we need and what we don’t,” he said.
Blandford specifically singled out the building department and police force as being overstaffed and areas he would scrutinize for cuts if elected, as well as raising questions to the need for the large town hall currently being planned by town council. “Do we need giant buildings to worship government? No we don’t because people have to leave to pay for them.”
A series of pointed questions regarding ethics, property ownership and business interests appeared to Blandford to be “looking for a crook up here!” Only Jerry Kaynard responded in the positive regarding owning property on the island that is not his personal residence.
He has several residential and commercial rental properties. None of the candidates admitted to having any other business interests on the island.
Are you in favor of parking passes?
The pressing issue of parking on the island was raised. O’Neil expressed concern that any parking management plan will impact residents too, and said he is actively looking to find a way around that. Kaynard said he is looking into regional cooperation, perhaps a shuttle from Mount Pleasant, to help alleviate congestion concerns.
“If we vote for paid parking I think every member of council will do it reluctantly,” Kaynard said. “It will change the character of the community, but if Isle Of Palms adopts parking we don’t have a choice.” Blandford questioned the purpose of a parking plan.
“Is it to keep people off the island? We can’t do that.” He went on to remark, somewhat flippantly, “But there’s this big lot beside the fire department, perhaps we could put a parking lot there instead of this big, big building being planned.”
What is your position on the maritime forest?
One of the island’s other major issues, how to deal with the town-owned maritime forest (also known as the accreted land) was brought up. It was here a clearer division emerged between the two council incumbents.
Kaynard discussed the overall concept of managing the land without providing any specific details as to what he thinks should be done with the land.
“If we think about what has happened in the last 20 years we may have a larger part of this island that is uninhabited than inhabited within the next 50 years. So we have to think about what we are creating,” he said.
“We should approach it by taking small projects, adopting them and trying to implement them. The study that we did on the accreted land is over 200 pages long, it’s a difficult subject for people to grasp. There are many parts to it, but we have to responsibly manage it.”
O’Neil took a firmer position, promising to keep working on finding a way to balance the needs of the neighbors whose homes are impacted by the growing forest with the needs of the land itself.
“I’ve been very involved in this as I’m chair of Land Use and Natural Resources committee which is in charge of the issue.
We’ve come up with management plan drafts for the land and we’ve tried to approach in a scientific manner and a nuanced manner that takes into account the resident’s needs.” Although he pointed out that council has ignored some of the committee’s recommendations, much to his objection. Kaynard then chose to “rebutt,” to be more definite in his position.
“No one is advocating clear cutting anymore,” he said. “Some trees are acceptable to those who live adjacent to the Front Beach, and that is a new position in the discussion. Some of the issues we had a year ago, 5 years ago, are no longer issues. Compromise is going to happen, however, we need a shorter proposal that is presented to the public and debated.
O’Neil then responded saying there is a much shorter version of the proposal and warning that “We need to be careful when discussing which trees are acceptable or not.”
Blandford’s response circled back to fiscal responsibility. “It’s a blessed problem, its function is to buffer the mainland from the hurricane. But the money is the common denominator. Can we afford to manage it?”
Our budget has sustained huge expenses this year. What will you do to keep taxes to a minimum?
The inevitable question of taxes was raised. O’Neil compared Sullivan’s millage rate to nearby municipalities, saying he believes the town’s property taxes are reasonable. “I wish it were lower, but the cost of providing the services is going up.”
It was at this point that Blandford revealed his plans to divest the island of some of its public servants in order to help lower the cost of living here.
“I’m a businessman and I look at income versus expenses all the time. Some of this [the town’s budget line items] I don’t even know what they are. We are paying people a full salary to drive around the island and tell people to stop building their treehouses.
We have 8 full time police officers and a full time detective for an island that takes 4 minutes to drive. Who is going to pay for it?
We need to look at this budget and see what as a community do we need? People are more important than government. I’m willing to sacrifice one of our code officers so my neighbor can stay on the island.”
Kaynard pointed out that there have been no property tax increases in 2010, 2011 and all increases since “pretty much track cost of living increases.” “We’ve been very good stewards of taxpayers’ money,” he said.
O’Neil asked voters to look at his long record of service to the town and see that his approach is “what we need to face the challenges from both outside the island and the challenges from dealing with and facing each other.” Kaynard pointed to his thick skin as a strong qualification.
“After 8 years on council someone asked me ‘what is the greatest qualification you need?” I said, to take a punch and be able to smile at the person who swung at you.
“I’m full of energy. I’m raring to go. I would like the opportunity to serve and I will listen to everyone,” he said. Blandford pointed to his position as a government outsider as his best qualification.
“Sometimes times call for men like me. Things are changing rapidly and we cannot control it through government. We need a different perspective. We have a lot of problems that I think we can address fiscally. I want to look at the budget and see how we can make it less expensive to live here.”
The election will be held Tuesday Jan. 6, 2015. The polling place is Sunrise Presbyterian Church, which open at 7 a.m. and close at 7 p.m. Look for a candidates question and answer in the Jan. 2 edition of Island Eye News.