As we prepare to elect our first new mayor in 40 years, this is an earnest plea to the electorate and our next mayor regarding an issue that means a lot to BACE League and its supporting Charleston residents. In short, here it is:
Unless our new mayor commits to a sophisticated model of civic process, Charleston faces a higher risk of short-sighted decisions with unintended consequences — not to mention apathy, corruption, cronyism, elitist oligarchism, and other abuses of power among city officials.
That's not an indictment of a particular city official. It's a statement of political physics. If we are to continue evolving into a more equitable, diverse, forward-thinking city, we need a mayor who will usher in a new era of civic process.
That may not sound like a very compelling pitch. It's not directly about an issue such as transportation, the BAR, development, affordable housing, the late-night economy, social justice, or sustainability. Indirectly, however, civic process is about all of those things. It represents the art and science of developing fair, reliable, long-term solutions to complex social problems — like those we face in Charleston.
This requires that we approach problem-solving by digging deeper than the usual "pro-issue X"/ "anti-issueX" mind-set, which can seem academic and much less satisfying than waving the banner for our favorite team. But that is precisely why it's so important. Civic process expects more of us. It appeals to our highest rational and fair-minded natures during times of disagreement. Likewise, I believe that you, reader, either understand why this concept is so important, or that you want to understand.
So let's examine this a little further.
First, let's be clear about what "civic process" means. It refers to principles of governmental decision-making such as:
• Oversight and accountability
• Rational basis for conclusions
• Fair notice of clear municipal standards
• Proactive inclusiveness
• Meaningful public hearings
• Protection of constitutional rights
• Thorough vetting of proposed actions
So why is civic process important? Because it is the philosophy of good governance. It represents our core belief in the power of reason, communication, and understanding to create the most harmonious community possible.
Not convinced? Maybe some comparisons will be helpful. In other contexts where fair and effective decisions must be made in complicated, high-stakes situations, procedural sophistication is goal No. 1. It is why a defendant is innocent until proven guilty; why judges must articulate the reason for their rulings; why courts will reverse an unconstitutional municipal action — even if the result of that action was positive. Process is about integrity. It is about having the discipline, vision, and leadership to do things for the right reasons and in the right way, simply because you know that it better ensures healthy long-term results, and doing so especially when it's not very convenient.
Which brings us back to our new mayor. That word — "integrity" — has been thrown around a lot via campaigns and endorsements. Well, this is what integrity looks like. It is a mayor who prioritizes civic process ahead of strategically pandering political answers.
That's intended neither as an endorsement nor an accusation. It is just another statement of political physics. It emphasizes an essential, if less-obvious, leadership skill that should be demanded of our new mayor. The decisions that he makes must be built upon a solid foundation of civic process, and right now, that local infrastructure could use a significant investment.
We have some ideas that we think will help with that investment — both for public servants and residents. Look for the BACE League 2016 Charleston Civics Project to be published in December.
Elliott A. Smith is a local attorney and the chief spokesperson for BACE League of Charleston.