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County Leadership: Giving Credit Where Credit is Due

Last week’s announcements that two out-of-state companies are bringing nearly 400 jobs - and millions in investment - to Anderson County is something to celebrate, but for reasons which go beyond the economic impact of new jobs and investment.

By Greg Wilson Editor/Publisher Anderson ObserverAnderson County Administrator Rusty Burns said it best: “Every single person who works for Anderson County should get credit for the announcements this week." Burns said the county’s various departments are making a concerted effort to work closely with the economic development folks and county council to ensure that any business considering locating in Anderson has met with every entity whose help they will need - from permits to roads and infrastructure to quality of life issues - when considering a move to Anderson. 

Making it easier on relocating companies is both wise and good for both those looking for a place to do business and for the county. It is a direction that just makes sense, and Anderson County leadership should be commended for embracing such an approach. It is also why yet another announcement of new jobs and investment is likely in the days ahead. 

Those involved in making it happen should be commended. For almost a decade, Anderson County has lagged in job growth, but under the current leadership things are indeed changing.  

So if you get a chance, thank your council member for their efforts in opening the door to this change. And while you’re at it, send a note of support to Burns and Anderson County Economic Development Director Burris Nelson for aggressively working to build the kind of partnerships and cooperative efforts with other local institutions and groups necessary to attract the kind of stable, family-owned industries which offer decent wages and seem a good fit for our community.

If you know any county employee, also extend thanks to their willingness to continue their hard work despite years of no raises and increased insurance costs. As Burns said, every county employee had a hand in the current economic development announcements. Several council members have also publicly thanked county employees for their part in the success. Hope this provides potential impetus for discussion pay increases for all county workers the 2014 budget. 

Anderson County still has a lot of work to do in many areas, but today we can celebrate that for now economic development seems to be on the right track. Let’s hope such cooperation and leadership extends to other county efforts and concerns in the days ahead.


Council Should Consider Time Management on Agenda

County Council Needs to Add Shorter Meetings to Bloated Agendas

Not long ago, I wrote a column suggesting that overly long Anderson County Council meetings were not in the best interest of local government. County Council Chairman Francis Crowder, Councilmen Tom Allen, Tommy Dunn and Ken Walker all agreed with my assessment, saying that the time had come to reign in overly long council meetings. Last night Councilwoman Gracie Floyd joined the chorus, but saying council needs to act on keeping meetings shorter. 

Greg Wilson, Editor/PublisherThen came Tuesday night’s 5.5 hour meeting, which took longer than a drive to Myrtle Beach. It was an agenda-heavy marathon that on the best night included far too many complex ordinances and resolutions for a single public council meeting. With storm water compliance reports (and attempts at much-needed compliance clarification) from DHEC, the annual audit report, the annual report from the Appalachian Council of Governments and a pair of contested zoning change proposals making up less than a quarter of the agenda, whoever is charged with making sure agendas contain the appropriate amount of content for a single council meeting must have been as drowsy as those still around at the end of Tuesday night’s meeting.

A representative from a company bringing 250 new jobs and a $22 million investment to the county sat patiently in his hard, uncomfortable, wooden seat with the rest of us until 11:40 p.m., and difficult as it might be to comprehend, the meeting would have lasted well past midnight had council not voted to conclude most of the rest of the business on the agenda at a special called meeting next week. 

Time management is key. Volatile issues such as zoning changes which include public hearings, should be treated as potentially substantial blocks of time and council meeting agendas adjusted accordingly. Citizen participation in such issues, which was spectacular Tuesday night, should not be relegated to a time slot leading well past 11 p.m. Tuesday night’s agenda, which can be viewed here, was clearly too much business for a single session of local government.

Long meetings are difficult for everyone. Guests, such as the business representative, the team for DHEC which drove up from Columbia; citizens who like to be active in local government; county employees required to attend the meetings; and council members themselves, who are at risk of making less than stellar decisions as the night wears on and when the agenda is overstuffed. 

In addition to the need for someone to become the county council champion of making sure meetings have a reasonably sized agenda, again it is time to revisit the idea of not using regular council meetings for honors and awards. A special quarterly meeting paying homage to Anderson’s brightest and best would better serve those receiving the awards and council. Such a meeting would allow more time to honor these people and for photos with the council members, instead of wedging them into the front end of a regular county council meeting. 

Shorter meetings would also attract more community leaders, busy men and women who would be far more likely to attend meetings if they knew there would be home before 8 p.m. 

Council members pledging to read all materials and discussing any agenda questions/issues among themselves in the days before Tuesday night meetings - the agenda is available on Fridays - would also do wonders to keep meetings shorter and more effective. Communication between council members leading up to the meetings might also lead to more effective communications during the actual meetings, thus cutting a few more precious minutes.  

There was never an intentional decision by Anderson County Council to hold meetings lasting to the near six-hour mark. But also there has not been a commitment to the discipline of preparation and agenda monitoring to assure meetings are effective and timely, and thus more accessible - and attractive - to all the citizens of Anderson County. Let’s get this on the agenda.


Time to Shorten County Council Meetings

By Greg Wilson


There was a time when citizen involvement in county government was substantial. In the 1980s and 90s council chambers were often full or close to full with interested Andersonians. In recent years, council meetings have generally attracted maybe a dozen citizens (save for slight bumps in attendance for pubic hearings), and are generally outnumbered by the number of county employees and security for whom attendance is either mandatory or somewhat mandatory. 

There are likely a number of reasons for the poorly attended meetings. People continue to add to their busy lives, and are increasingly jaded when it comes to the political process. 

But one thing is certain, the three-hour-plus meetings which have become a hallmark of the current County Council is not helping attendance. This is particularly true given the actual time given to the business of running and leading the county takes less than half of this time. 

The extra hours could be trimmed with very little effort.

First, a lot of time is spent with council members asking questions concerning the agenda and agenda materials which could and should be reviewed and clarified earlier in the day. The agenda is generally available the Friday before the upcoming Tuesday meeting, allowing ample time for council members to ask questions of each other, the county administrator or county attorney prior to the meeting. 

There was a time when council did indeed hold a pre-meeting on Tuesday mornings prior to scheduled evening meetings. Why those are no longer a part of the schedule seems as mysterious to the council members I asked as it is to the rest of us.

Another, and often even more prominent reason for ultra-long county council meetings is the time allocated for recognition and giving of awards. Shining a spotlight on our neighbors who have contributed to our community or accomplished some milestone is important. But allotting most of the first hour of every county council meeting to such is not the most efficient way for such recognition. Council did attempt to restrict the bestowing of recognition and honors to once a quarter, but the attempt was soon jettisoned. 

Instead, a quarterly special meeting devoted solely to honors and awards would provide more time for attention to those honored and their families, including photo-ops with officials.

Finally, curtailing called executive sessions to a bare minimum, or scheduling such sessions at 5 p.m. as part of an early council start time, would also serve to trim long meetings.

Council is working in a variety of progressive areas to move Anderson County forward as a great place to invest, work and live. Making council meetings more accessible by taking action to curb very long meetings would be one more positive step in that direction.


Southern Baptists Show Their Blind Side, Again

By Greg Wilson


At the annual meeting of the Southern Baptist Convention in New Orleans this week, the gathering of the world's largest Protestant denomination (nearly double the size of the second largest group), once again has managed to allow the spotlight to be hijacked by the kind of mindless minutiae which has greased the skids for five consecutive years of membership decline.

Following what should have been, and for a short time was, an amazing celebration with the Tuesday election of the group's first African-American president, New Orleans native and pastor the Rev. Fred Luter, the Baptists apparently could not help themselves and followed up with a move to ban the movie "The Blind Side" from their Lifeway Christian Bookstore in a resolution saying the film "contains explicit profanity, God's name in vain, and racial slur."

The movie, which tells the story of how an evangelical Christian family took in and eventually adopted a homeless young man (Michael Oher, who went on to play in the NFL), received Academy Award nominations for best picture and awarded the Best Actress Oscar to Sandra Bullock for the film in 2009. It has been reviewed and recommended for family viewing by a number of Christian websites, including the Focus on the Family site "Plugged In" which found the Christianity portrayed by the family in the film: "refreshingly three-dimensional, and we see into their souls just enough to know that faith in Jesus is a prime factor in their best, most generous tendencies."

Instead of finding redeeming value in a film which does not depict Christians as serial killers, pedophiles or toothless innocents, the Baptists instead chose to do a cherry-pick count of the number of profanities in the film, oblvious to the context or overall message of the film.

This is not a rallying cry to return the movie to Lifeway shelves. Anyone who wanted to see this movie has likely seen it by now. ABC has run it at least twice on broadcast television. What I am more concerned about is the continued expressions of moral indignation that make the work of Southern Baptist churches and pastors more difficult.

As the Rev. Jack Hayford once said: "There is no more room in the barns of righteous indignation. They are full. Shaking our heads at the ills of society does not change hearts." Somebody needs to put this on a t shirt and see if Lifeway will sell it.

The Baptists have a history of this sort of thing, one of many reasons the conventions themselves attract less than half the number of messengers (delegates) the meetings drew a couple of decades ago. I have watched the decline of the denomination over the last 35 or so years from a front row seat. I am the product of a Southern Baptist college and two Southern Baptist seminaries. I have both attended the conventions as a messenger and as a journalist.

The annual meetings were once a gathering of pastors, missionaries from across the globe, educators and laity to renew old friendships, get updates on missions, check out the latest literature and to join together in a combination of worship and business meetings all loosely connected by the concept of the cooperating to make spreading the gospel in a unified and more financially efficient manner. None of these meetings were ever perfect expressions, nor were the pre-conference pastors' conferences, but by and large the heart of the denomination was focused.

Not going to write a history of the the splintering off of the the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship in 1990. It was clear that politics overruled mission at the San Antonio Convention in 1988 when Southern Baptists elected the Rev. Jerrry Vines president over the Rev. Richard Jackson, who despite having more baptisms, growth and giving to the denomination lost the office for lack of playing to the internal political parties. Things were never the same after that for Southern Baptists.

The years that followed featured such things as the much ballyhooed boycott of Disney, which did not seem to deter very many pastors or their families from the theme park during conventions held in Orlando. The issue was allegedly to protest Disney's perceived support of homosexual rights, but instead became a news story which created mostly derisive laughter and outright hypocrisy. It became the ultimate example of a failed boycott.

Meanwhile those who are not people of faith are avoiding the Baptist in record numbers. Even their own internal survey found that close to half of those survey who classified themselves as non-church goes had a negative view of Southern Baptists and their churches. This should be a very real concern to a church who has rallied behind the call to seek and save the lost.

This does not mean Baptists should be passive. But moral pronouncements do little to change hearts or help the local pastors, churches and lay people change their communities in meaningful ways. The mission and vision statements of the Southern Baptist Convention are full of statements proclaiming a purpose of spreading a passion for Jesus and other people and making it clear that Jesus is the only hope for the world.

But such lofty goals have been overshadowed in recent years by allowing allowing compassionate evangelism to take a back seat to the preaching to the choir messages of ineffective commentary on social issues which cannot be changed through proclamation or condemnation.

With still close to 16,000,000 members, the Southern Baptist Convention is not in danger of closing up shop anytime soon. But the do face a very real danger of being an irrelevant Leviathan if they continue down the path of using their increasingly bully pulpit to tell the world what's wrong rather than pointing to the source of that which is right.


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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