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Anderson County Leadership in Information Praiseworthy

By Greg Wilson

Editor/Publisher, Anderson Observer

Media outlets across the country are currently marking National Sunshine Week, a national initiative to open a dialogue about the importance of open government and freedom of information. Participants include print, broadcast and online news media, civic groups, libraries, nonprofits, schools and others interested in the public's right to know.

The rights of citizens to access of public information is crucial to effective government and sustained community growth. The days have past when citizens are willing to accept the paternalist notion that our elected officials “know best” about what information the public should or should not be allowed to access.

Anderson County government has come a long way in this process. Back in the 1980s when I covered the county as editorial page editor of the Anderson Independent, it more often than not took repeated requests, costly fees and even legal representation to obtain documents which they were clearly required to provide by law under the South Carolina Freedom of Information Act. Even then the information provided was often delayed until it was no longer relevant or edited beyond reason.

Fast forward 20 years. Last week the county was recognized as one of only 39 in the nation to receive a perfect score from the Sunshine Week group for their initiatives in openess and transparency in government. (Details here) The county took it a step forward by holding a public meeting Friday night asking for suggestions of what else can be done to make all county information more accessible to individuals and the media. Several suggestions were made and there were promises to act on those suggestions.  

Anderson County Administrator Rusty Burns, Public Information Officer and Web Manager Angie Stringer, and members of County Council deserve credit for their efforts to make the county a model of transparent government.

There is still much to be done. The public needs to understand their civic duty to be vigilant along with the media to make sure the county continues to stay on the bleeding edge of this issue. County officials need to be given refresher courses every year on the mandates of the S.C. Freedom of Information Act, and what it requires. Executive sessions in particular, need to be examined more closely in the bright light of that legislation.

Meanwhile, the county is holding an open public session at 2 p.m. Wednesday for municipalities, counties, school districts, etc., to demonstrate the steps taken to make county date available online and to offer assistance to any government/school entity.  The county is also offering to host web sites for local municipalities wishing to post their financial  or other information. The session will be held at the historic courthouse.

I hope these groups will take advantage of this session.


President No Match for Teachers

By Greg Wilson

Editor/Publisher, Anderson Observer

    I watched the president's address yesterday with a bunch of third graders. Lights down, television on one of those raised brackets up in one corner. In the dim room, the volume was just right, the kids quiet and well-behaved.
    At the end of the speech, the teacher asked if there were any questions. There were three:
What is our math homework again?
Can I go to the bathroom?
Is it time to go?
    At least one boy finished his math homework during the short address, safe since all eyes were on the screen.
    I asked one girl, who appeared totally tuned in to the president's entire talk, what she thought of what he said and she replied: "I got kind of sleepy when they turned out the lights."
    Recognizing there is place for debate in all that is politics, and the right of parents to choose - and at least in this county, all parents were allowed to opt their youngsters out of viewing the speech - I walked away with a renewed belief that not much has changed since I sat in an old wooden desk in Mrs. Medlock's room back in the mid-sixties.
    We still had prayer in school back then, at least at my school. But the most passionate displays of prayer were those silent ones before math tests. So not much has changed there. My teacher worked hard to engage the classroom, much as the third grade teacher I witnessed yesterday, and we paid attention - to her. When anyone else, a substitute, the principal, a parent, anybody else talked, our eyes glazed over pretty fast. We didn't have television in the schools in those days, but we had film strip projectors, which more often than not would overheat and burn a spot on the film. When the lights went down and the scratchy record on the old hi-fi was synced to filmstrip, they all seemed to be about Bolivia in my memory for some reason, we got drowsy and our attention drifted to recess and lunch and going home to get out and play.
    I saw that same look in the eyes of those third graders yesterday. Which is why we need to worry more about making sure our teachers have the time they need to engage their students rather than getting a little too worked up about guest speakers in the classroom, whatever their political stripe.
    After the speech, I witnessed a teacher who had the captive attention of her classroom, a teaching assistant who they actually paid attention to, as if a brain switch had clicked "on" after the television was turned off.
    I can't help but wish the president had a video of that to show folks next time, one which shows how education is supposed to work.



Sullivan's More than Great Food

By Greg Wilson

Editor/Publisher, Anderson Observer

        They had not been opened very long, when I first took my wife Deborah to Sullivan's Metropolitan Grill for an anniversary dinner. I had not been in the Sullivan building since the days of high shelves full of tools and screws and piles of all manner of hardware treasures stacked loose in open boxes.
        But new owner Bill Nikas somehow figured out how to keep the recognizable elements of an old hardware store while creating a downright elegant dining experience in downtown Anderson. I remember the El Dorado Steakhouse being elegant for the day, but this was something a notch up. This was the kind of restaurant hometown folks were accustomed to driving to maybe Vince Perone's in Greenville for, or even someplace toney in Atlanta.
        Sullivan's was fine dining, right here at home. Amazing creations in the kitchen from appetizer to dessert. Beautiful tables, courteous staff and owner, very fancy all around but not one highfalutin person or thing in the building.
        That night we had the stuffed pork chops and finished with coconut cream pie (something that became a Sullivan's siren call for me after that). Later the the lamb became my favorite dish, and I don't think I was ever in a conversation about food in this town where debates over the best food at Sullivan's did not play a major role. (Grouper, had the most fans).
        But serving as the place for special occasions was not all there was to Sullivan's. The owner, Bill Nikas, quietly supported community causes in a number of ways over the years, providing food and a place for local charitable organizations to meet, including Newspring church as its planned its first campus, other donations and an under-the-radar approach to community service which will be difficult to replace.
        Thanks, Bill, you are a great neighbor and friend to Anderson. I look forward to seeing what you will do next. In the meantime, know that those of us in Anderson appreciate what you and your family have given us and pray for you all as you plan your next adventure.
        Finally, I hope everyone who reads this will visit Sullivan's in the next week and savor one more glorious meal. And while you are there, thank Bill and the staff for all their amazing work bringing something truly special to this town.


County Council should Look Ahead

By Greg Wilson

Editor/Publisher, Anderson Observer

     Mention Anderson County Council tomorrow at work or at lunch with friends and you will likely be met with a roll of the eyes or smirk, sometimes accompanied by the shaking of a head. The past year or so has been one of constant turmoil, no doubt.Greg Wilson, Editor/Publicher

     The tumultuous departure of a long-time administrator and an election changed many of the faces who now lead county government.

     Such change generally offers opportunities to surge forward, to aggressively plan and take action on those things which will help the county shake off the dust of controversy which seems to still hang in the air, even as 2009 races toward fall.

     There have been some bright spots. The hiring of Rusty Burns, a long-time Anderson leader with a solid grasp of the issues, as interim county administrator was a good call. Those of us who have known him, believe that he has a tremendous amount to offer in that position and we hold out hopes he might be offered - and actually consider accepting - the position full time. He is in the perfect position of being local, being eminently qualified and not really needing the job. Can you say ideal public servant?

     But there is a central philosophical concept which needs to be addressed for even a strong leader to take Anderson County forward. Somehow, some way, Anderson County's elected officials have got to find a way to leave the past behind. The obsession with putting a microscope on what has gone on in recent years needs to end. The proposal approving more funds to pay investigators will hopefully be among the last of its kind.

     It is time to take the spotlight off of whatever has gone before, good or bad, to let go of whatever emotional hangover that is left and move on.

     The leadership is in place. We have a largely experienced council, none of whom are reticent to express their positions, which can be a good and healthy thing. Each of these men and women bring something to the table, and were elected by folks who believe they can provide leadership the county needs. The time has come for each county council to remember this charge. Leaders lead.

     It is not really that things are bad, at least yet. Despite the catcalls of critics, Anderson County is not a laughingstock, it is a place many of the other counties in the state visit to see how we do things here because we do them well. No reason to believe this will not continue. Many of those on council have visions and ideas which would accomplish this goal.

      Since the passage of Home Rule in 1975, Anderson County government - even with its bumps in the road - has progressed far beyond many of the other counties in the state because we seemed to have elected passionate leaders.

      The current council is no exception. Love them or hate them, you have to admit they are a passionate bunch. But the time has come to refocus that passion on innovative and forward-thinking leadership and finally let go of the past. Maybe before the leaves change.





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