Up until last week, Sen. Larry Grooms and many of his fellow senators wanted to include an amendment in this year's budget that would deter cities from suing the state of South Carolina. Many believe the amendment was meant to intimidate the city of North Charleston, which intends to sue the state in federal court.
But now Grooms — and the state — have begun singing a different tune. First, the state senator asked his fellow legislators to vote down the amendment, and then yesterday, S.C. Attorney Gen. Alan Wilson filed a suit against North Charleston. My oh my, how things have changed.
Wilson argues that a 2002 memorandum of understanding between the State Ports Authority and North Charleston is not, as North Charleston Mayor Keith Summey has argued, between the city and the state; it's between the city and the SPA. As a result, Wilson says, the state is free to build a new rail terminal on the northern end of the Navy Yard, a move not permitted by the 2002 memorandum.
The irony of the state's lawsuit was not lost on North Charleston City Attorney Brady Hair. He notes that the state told North Charleston that it was wrong for the city to sue the state, but then it turns around and sues the city.
As for Wilson's argument that the SPA is not the same thing as the state, Hair says, "They say it's not, but look who's suing?"
Good point. Who exactly is suing North Charleston? As it turns out three entities are: the State of South Carolina, the Commerce Department, and the State Ports Authority.
"If they are not all the same, what are they doing?" Hair asks.
In the suit, Wilson asks the state Supreme Court to decide if the state is bound to agreements made by state departments and agencies. The attorney general argues that if the court rules that it is, then the state as it is will be turned upside down, with smaller entities dictating what the whole will do.
Hair, however, stresses that it's what the attorney general ignores in his argument that is important, namely that the General Assembly insisted that the SPA and North Charleston craft an MOU in the first place. "It was the state legislature that ordered us to do this in the first place," he says. That demand was seconded by the state Budget and Control Board, the office that performs many of the executive branch duties that the governor's office would perform in other states. South Carolina has one of the weakest, if not the weakest, governor's office in the nation.
While conventional wisdom would suggest the state suit against the city is yet another move to prevent North Charleston from filing its own lawsuit, Hair says the city has no intention of changing its plans. He argues that permits for the proposed port in North Charleston, the very reason for the creation of a new rail terminal at the Navy Yard, were given based on environmental studies focusing on a terminal at the southern end of the former naval base. As such, the permits would be invalid if the state goes ahead with plans to build a terminal on the northern end of the Naval Yard.
Chris Haire is a resident of North Charleston's Park Circle neighborhood.