Same Old Song
Starting on July 1, 2019, the City of Charleston’s budget will provide funding for a “Racial Reconciliation Manager.” City attorney Susan Herdina says the manager will be responsible for “coordinating any discrimination complaints the city receives, addressing those, and routing them to the appropriate party or agency for resolution.”
Noble intentions, but is it sort of like a school crossing guard, but for racial complaints?
The new manager will be charged with addressing the need for attention to issues normally handled by the state Human Affairs Commission, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, or the Department of Housing and Urban Development. Put plainly, the manager will direct complaints to state and federal agencies over which the city has no power to rectify. Only thing is, Herdina readily admits that these are areas where, “the City of Charleston really has very limited jurisdiction.”
This begs the question: How will someone who simply points complainants in the right direction actually promote racial equality within the city? And how is this any improvement over the system we have now? Without any real power, they can do little to solve the problems at the source of the complaints, even if they do make people feel better — particularly potential African-American voters.
A quick refresher on how local government works and the relatively limited powers cities in South Carolina have may be helpful. The City of Charleston, like other cities, has specific powers granted to it by the General Assembly. In 1975, the South Carolina Home Rule Act went a long way to expand those powers to allow municipalities to govern many of their own affairs which were previously handled by the state legislature. Charleston operates under a strong-mayor form of government, which grants considerable authority to the mayor’s office, but city council maintains some checks on the ability for the mayor and their appointees to act unilaterally.
The idea that a new administrative position appointed by the mayor, is tasked with rectifying racial inequities that are not within the city’s power, underscores the limitations that the “Racial Reconciliation Manager” faces out of the gate.
The opportunity to accomplish meaningful goals within the scope of a city’s power lies in the mayor and council acting in concert. Even in a strong-mayor system, the mayor cannot address problems that are outside of their control. In any case, if the mayor cannot even regularly persuade a majority of city council to support his initiatives, the ability to address issues within that limited scope is severely hampered.
Despite this, Mayor Tecklenburg deserves credit, along with Councilman Dudley Gregorie, for the successful passage of a resolution apologizing for Charleston’s role in the slave trade. But as significant as the symbolic measure was, there is a world of difference between proclamations and concrete initiatives which actually solve citizens’ problems — racial or otherwise.
Along the same lines, Mayor Tecklenburg recently created the city’s first independent storm water department, calling it “a vital step toward ensuring that flooding and draining protections drive city approvals.”
But in the same way that a new storm water department will not make flood waters recede, a new racial reconciliation manager won’t cause racial discrimination to disappear. It takes more than a new administrative position or an ambitious plan to solve recurring problems that have gotten progressively worse over decades. Sea levels are still going to rise and racial disparities are still going to exist in the city no matter who is hired to listen and feel their pain.
Before worrying about directing citizen complaints to the EEOC, HUD, or Human Affairs Commission, the mayor would be well served by honing his ability to build consensus on city council to specifically address problems that are within the city’s purview. Ambitious plans and new leadership positions may be good talking points for re-election, but without the proven ability to enact concrete initiatives with the support of council, one might be more productive spending time playing the piano … or whistling Dixie.
Dwayne Green is a former city attorney from Charleston who focuses on litigation, municipal, and zoning issues.
This article, written by Dwayne Green, first appeared in the Charleston City Paper on February 6, 2019. View Dwayne’s full archive of articles at the Charleston City Paper as a guest columnist. Photo by Søren Astrup Jørgensen on Unsplash