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New County Council grapples with old divide

6 mins read

By Bill Rauch

With four new members, they may look like a new Beaufort County Council, but the long and divisive shadow of former interim administrator Josh Gruber still darkens their deliberations.

Last week, glimpses of the familiar divide were apparent again. This time the venue was the meeting of the Council’s Community Facilities Committee.

That was the meeting where the committee voted 5-3 to advance to the full council a proposal to build a Disabilities and Special Needs (DSN) group home at 1 Bostick Circle in Beaufort’s Battery Point neighborhood.

At first blush, the resistance to the placing of the facility there appears to have been “prejudice” against disabled persons, and Councilman Gerald Dawson said so. Vice Chairman Paul Sommerville too has called out the opponents as being guilty of “pretextual discrimination.”

They say it is a charade to argue, as the chairman of Battery Shores’ Architectural Review Board and others did at the meeting, that the property won’t drain. Properly filled and graded, it will drain to the street just like the lots of its neighbors do, just like the subdivision’s drainage plan proscribes, and just as the county’s stormwater chief, Eric Larson, promised at the meeting to ensure sure it will.

Moreover, the county has in hand a drainage permit for the property issued by the City of Beaufort, within whose municipal boundaries the lot is located.

And the prejudice-finders ask what sense it makes to say, as some opponents of the facility do, that Beaufort County’s DSN consumers shouldn’t live near water. There’s water everywhere in Beaufort County. More all the time. But DSN’s staff says they have determined that when the facility is properly constructed, it will be safe for the no more than four DSN consumers who will be provided housing there.

Further complicating an about-face now, Assistant County Attorney Chris Inglese has cautioned council that since the county bought the lot for $34,000 and it appraised for $35,000, and since DSN staff recommended the purchase, that selling it now could appear discriminatory and possibly be a violation of the Federal Fair Housing Laws that prohibit discrimination in housing against people with disabilities.

I hear the discrimination argument, but I don’t buy it. 

Here’s the real heart of the divide.

In arguing against the county going forward with the building of the facility, Councilman Brian Flewelling, who lives in the neighborhood and who represents the Burton district and as such is the appropriate leader of the opposition’s forces, argues the county should sell the property and begin a new search for an appropriate site. Flewelling argues the purchase of the parcel was made in violation of County Council’s policies because it was not brought specifically before council by the administrator.  

Who authorized the purchase of the parcel?

The very same Josh Gruber who resigned last summer as the county’s interim administrator.

When asked, Inglese opined at the meeting that Gruber had broken no laws and could not be sanctioned for his “technical violation of our code” decision.

What? Here’s what. This is in my opinion the most recently-revealed example of Gruber doing what Gruber did, and why he ruffled feathers. This was Gruber steamrolling ahead and trying to put into place the will of the council’s majority but without glancing over his shoulder to see which if any of his bosses’ noses were slipping out of joint.

Answering the opponents’ “Gruber didn’t consult us” argument, the facility’s supporters on council say: Nonsense, Gruber was authorized by council to purchase four parcels of property upon which to build the four needed facilities and with no instruction that he must come back to them for parcel-by-parcel votes.

Which brings us to the underlying issue, the familiar old one: fealty to the Council-Administrator form of government. Some County Council members want to be closely involved in the day-to-day operations of the county while others would leave the details to the county administrator. The acquisition of 1 Bostick Circle is the most recent bout in this lengthy history.

Here’s what’s key: Who’s on which side on the new council? 

Flewelling was joined in voting against last week’s DSN proposal by Bluffton Councilman Michael E. Covert, an anti-Gruber veteran, and newly-elected Councilman Chris Hervochan from the Moss Creek district.

We will soon see who else might be in the Anti-Gruber/Weak Administrator camp, because in the present free-spending era of Politics by Investigation some on council still want to spend up to $10,000 to hire an attorney to investigate Gruber’s now six months or more-old decisions to see what if any crimes or violations of policy he might have committed.

And the group home at 1 Bostick Circle item is currently expected to appear on the full council’s Feb. 25 agenda. 

Bill Rauch was the mayor of Beaufort from 1999-2008. Email Bill at TheRauchReport@gmail.com.

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