Every January, in our Year In Review issue, Free Times runs down the most important and highest-profile stories of the previous year in an attempt to sum up where we’ve been and where we might be going.
Also, at least once a year, Free Times runs down the best examples of South Carolinian idiocy in a recurring feature we like to call Our Dumb State.
Sometimes it can be hard to tell the difference between the two.
Take 2013, which featured:
• Columbia’s interim police chief telling a Facebook commenter the cops would hunt him down for defending marijuana legalization.
• A state lawmaker getting his second DUI in less than a year after he was seen stumbling around the State House garage; his attorney told cops he had a pebble in his shoe.
• Columbia City Council members disagreeing over whether they’d voted to criminalize homelessness, while the nation looked on aghast.
It wasn’t all stupidity. 2013 was a banner year for Columbia city development, with several key property deals coming through and Main Street continuing to expand. At the same time, it was a big year for cops and violence, with the city police department in disarray and University of South Carolina officials declaring Five Points unsafe after midnight. And it was a big year, as always, for elections and electioneering in this most political of cities in this most political of states.
What sweeping conclusions should we draw about the year that was? Heck if we know. Let us know what you come up with. — Eva Moore
There have always been a lot of homeless people in Columbia. But in 2013, the numbers seemed to grow. Downtown business owners and residents said they felt unsafe and unsupported. Columbia City Councilman Cameron Runyan took on the issue, holding a series of public forums to gather feedback on how the city should address homelessness. And then he rolled out a very specific plan to, among other things, tighten the city’s various vagrancy laws and launch a rural homeless treatment center called The Retreat. Some business leaders rallied around the plan, but other people pointed out that it could violate people’s civil liberties and was kind of creepy, in any case.
On Aug. 13, Council debated the issue until 3 a.m., finally voting to open the city’s existing winter shelter early and take some other basic steps to address homelessness. Runyan, though, thought Council had approved his whole plan. What ensued was a weeks-long media frenzy as national outlets reported on The Southern City That Criminalized Homelessness. (Free Times did its best to correct the record.) Council was forced to rescind its muddled early-morning vote. The winter shelter opened according to plan. Meanwhile, you haven’t heard the last of Runyan’s broader goal of ending homelessness in Columbia. — Eva Moore
Despite a lot of strong words and dirty looks between Mayor Steve Benjamin and his nearest opponent, City Councilman Moe Baddourah, the mayoral contest was never even close: Benjamin sailed to a 61 percent victory in November, winning a second term in office and vindication for his broad vision for the city. Beyond that, though, Benjamin had a pretty rough year. Benjamin’s brother-in-law was shot to death in Charlotte in broad daylight by an acquaintance. Benjamin’s longtime business partner is under federal indictment for allegedly bribing public officials, soliciting kickbacks and stealing government funds — and some of those allegations involve a development project in which Benjamin was once a partner. (Prosecutors have not accused Benjamin of anything.) He lost the strong-mayor vote. Meanwhile, at City Hall, Benjamin’s own colleagues on Council have complained he is divisive and short-tempered, and some of his legislative victories barely sneaked through. It could be a long four years for the mayor. — Eva Moore
Complaining about Columbia’s unwieldy, inefficient City Council has long been a favorite pastime among the 15 percent or so of citizens who bother to vote in city elections. The city’s council-manager system — in which each of seven council members (including the mayor) has an equal vote and all are the collective boss of an unelected city manager — basically ensures that Columbia is structurally incapable of moving quickly or decisively on anything, and that city managers and police chiefs will routinely be browbeaten out of office by their seven micromanaging bosses. But when pressed to make a change, Columbians made a decision so classic that it’s a cliché: They chose to stick with the devil they know rather than take a chance on the one they don’t. More specifically, voters decided they’d rather keep the small-town responsiveness they feel with their own council members than risk giving new powers to what they feared would be an aloof, inaccessible mayor’s office. — Dan Cook
There’s an old joke in journalism: Two is a coincidence, three is a trend. By this time next year, you’ll be able to find at least three Columbia-based craft breweries, all of which are full-production breweries (unlike, say, Hunter-Gatherer, which has been brewing beer since 1995 but for restaurant customers and growler sales only), and all of which sit within spitting distance of Williams-Brice Stadium. Conquest Brewing made its debut at last year’s World Beer Festival, offering its Artemis Blonde and Sacred Heart IPA; its offerings have since expanded and can be found in several local bars and liquor stores. It opened a tasting room at its South Stadium Road facility in June. Two more breweries, River Rat and Swamp Cabbage, were announced in 2013; they’re both set to open in 2014. — Patrick Wall
The Capital City lost some civic giants in 2013: former mayoral candidate Steve Morrison; veteran political journalist Lee Bandy; and outgoing Chamber of Commerce Chief Executive Ike McCleese. Rather than for his brief turn in city politics, Morrison should be remembered as a crusader for justice and a passionate supporter of the arts. Working pro bono for the children of South Carolina’s shoddiest school districts, Morrison famously sued the state in the Corridor of Shame trial, calling for equity in public school funding and the eradication of ancient racial injustices — the ruling for which we still wait. Bandy, for his part, covered South Carolina politics for The State for 40 years, including 20 as that paper’s Washington correspondent. During that time, Bandy chronicled the Palmetto State’s transformation from a virtual one-party state dominated by conservative Democrats to a virtual one-party state dominated by conservative Republicans, as well as the rise of the religious right in national politics. As for McCleese, he led the Chamber for almost two decades, making it the political force it is today, but he should be most remembered for his support of the military in South Carolina, having helped fend off cuts and closures to Midlands bases during the major military realignment in 2005. The loss of these three men has been keenly felt already. — Porter Barron Jr.
Since the early days of her campaign for governor, Gov. Nikki Haley has embraced ethics reform as her issue, sometimes with glaring incongruity. For example, at a November press conference, Haley urged adoption of an ethics reform bill currently in the Senate, arguing, “If you don’t know who pays your legislator, then you don’t know why they are voting the way they are” — as if she’d never faced charges of illegally lobbying for her employers, as if she’d never sidestepped those charges by cynically reminding a Republican-controlled House Ethics Committee that her “business conduct and activities are commonplace in the Legislature.”
But 2013 was the year an ethics charge against Haley actually stuck. In July, the State Ethics Commission fined her $3,500 for failing to include addresses for several campaign donors on a disclosure form. Then, in August, it appeared she might chalk up another for having collected campaign donations illegally on a taxpayer-funded visit to North Carolina, but State Ethics Commission Director Herb Hayden overruled an earlier opinion by the commission’s legal counsel after consulting with Haley’s private attorney. Immediately afterward, Hayden claimed that a letter from the Ethics Commission attorney to Haley, explaining the latter’s alleged ethics violation, had never been sent. He later revised that statement, saying the letter had been destroyed, only to have it miraculously turn up later in a journalist’s Freedom of Information Act request. Hayden has kept mum on the letter since, but an email exchange between Hayden and Haley’s attorney Butch Bowers indicates that the letter was in fact sent to the governor. Now government watchdogs are wondering whether the Haley administration has placed inappropriate pressure on a lily-livered Ethics Commission, and so far nobody wants to answer the hard questions. — Porter Barron Jr.
It’s been more than a decade since the state Department of Mental Health began trying to sell off the site of the former state asylum, which occupies 181 acres along Bull Street in the heart of the city. This year, the city finally approved the zoning and development agreement for the site, allowing Greenville developer Bob Hughes to move forward with his ambitious ideas, which include some 3,500 residential units, office and retail space, a hotel and a baseball stadium. The city could fork over nearly $80 million in the next several years, having agreed to put in water and sewer lines and parking garages provided Hughes meets certain deadlines. (In fact, thanks to a leaked memo, we now know the city’s own attorney warned that the deal exposed the city to excessive risk.) Meanwhile, those who care about the Bull Street site’s many historic buildings are holding their breath, as the city deal only protects a handful of the many significant structures on the campus. — Eva Moore
Since Feb. 18, 1965, the predominant historical narrative regarding Columbia has been of Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman’s forces razing our city, but in 2013, roughly the 50th anniversary of desegregation, Columbia celebrated a nobler chapter of our past — the civil rights movement and its removal of racial barriers. While Columbia was mostly spared the blasts and bloodshed seen in towns across Mississippi and Alabama, the calculated defiance of Jim Crow in South Carolina took just as much courage and deserves just as much shine. Through commemorative events that included guided tours, lectures and galas, Columbia’s integrators got their due recognition this year. — Porter Barron Jr.
A year ago, the 12,000-resident town of Lake City, S.C., ranked somewhere above Clio and below Hartsville in the minds of Columbia arts types — which is to say, nowhere. Now, after the inaugural edition of the Darla Moore-supported and immensely ambitious ArtFields art festival, Lake City is a household name in Columbia and beyond.
While ArtFields attracted interest throughout the Southeast with its $100,000 in prizes, it’s not just about boosting the profile of Moore’s hometown, which sits about halfway between Columbia and Myrtle Beach. It’s also about raising the profile of South Carolina artists and demonstrating the broad economic potential of the arts. The first-year event was less than perfect, with a relatively low number of artist submissions given the prize money at stake. Nonetheless, it was wildly successful in establishing a major new event that has the potential to reshape and define the state’s visual arts scene for years to come. — Dan Cook
Oh, Richland County. Will you ever get it together? Former county elections director Lillian McBride led a disastrous election effort in the fall of 2012 that featured long lines, broken machines, too few machines and, ultimately, some uncounted ballots, too. After much furor from citizens — and inexplicable political cover from S.C. Sen. Darrell Jackson — McBride was demoted last spring. But that wasn’t all: A report into the mess lacked teeth, and the city election in November led by new director Howard Jackson featured yet another snafu — 1,100 uncounted absentee ballots. To his credit, Jackson quickly owned up to the mistake and has brought a welcome change in tone and transparency to the elections office. But the bottom line is this: Citizens’ faith in the electoral process has been sorely challenged, and with the governor’s race and two U.S. Senate races coming up in 2014, there’s no room for more errors. — Dan Cook
In 2012, a development team from Ohio announced a plan to knock down the massive Palmetto Compress building, a former cotton warehouse built around 1918 that looms above Blossom Street near Huger. The historic building would be too difficult to reuse, they said, with sloping floors and tiny windows, and they wanted to put a new student housing development there instead. Although the city rejected the student housing proposal, the building owners threatened to knock down the building anyway — and people got mad, lobbying City Council to do something. Council did: They voted 5-2 to buy the warehouse instead, for $5.65 million. Historic preservationists celebrated; developers and other business interests raged. Then, in October, Vista developer Rosie Craig announced she would buy the building from the city for $5.75 million and turn it into a multi-use space featuring a hotel, office space and other uses. — Eva Moore
Elected in 2004, Randy Halfacre lost his job as mayor of the Town of Lexington in November — by 18 votes. Incoming mayor Steve MacDougall hadn’t raised much money, and few expected him to have a shot at toppling the incumbent. But MacDougall apparently had the magic words: “I want to change the culture and the conversation in Lexington,” he told Free Times before the election.
It’s a message that seems to be resonating in a county known for good-old-boy politics (think former S.C. Sen. Jake Knotts) and video poker (think Town Councilman Danny Frazier); the November elections also saw the mayors of Springdale and Chapin ousted.
The new mayors join an earlier wave of reformers, Cayce Mayor Elise Partin (elected in 2008) and S.C. Sen. Katrina Shealy (elected in 2012). Regardless, the county’s politics will likely stay tumultuous: Lexington is a notoriously anti-tax county that also suffers massive traffic problems, and next year’s ballot features a referendum on a penny tax for transportation projects. — Dan Cook
The July 1 murder of Kelly Hunnewell — a 33-year-old single mother shot down while working a bakery’s graveyard shift in order to support her four kids — captured public attention. And when people found out that two of the three suspects in her murder recently had been released from jail on bond and were awaiting trial for prior violent crimes, outrage ensued, sparking a local outcry for bond reform. — Porter Barron Jr.
Seems nearly every week in 2013, Free Times had good news to report about Main Street. Businesses, especially key local businesses, continued to flock to Main Street: Mad Monkey, an Emmy Award-winning creative boutique, moved to Main Street in June, on the same block as the recently relocated Nickelodeon Theatre. Restaurants opened, too: Cantina 76 opened its second taqueria on Main, and Salina Café brought Ethiopian cuisine to Main; Bourbon, a Cajun-Creole restaurant spearheaded by Kristian Niemi, is set to open in the first quarter of 2014. Downtown’s festivals — in particular Indie Grits, the Main Street Latin Festival and Jam Room Music Festival — grew, and the First Thursday on Main arts series continued to flourish. And soon enough, more (and younger) people will be living on Main: Construction on The Hub, a luxury student apartment complex in the old SCANA building, began in the fall; it’ll open next year. It wasn’t all good news, though: Longtime soul-food joint Mac’s on Main and S&S Art Supply both closed this year. The one Main Street development that made Free Times the happiest: Drip Coffee opened a satellite branch near the corner of Main and Hampton. This is just to say that Main Street’s still the focal point of the conversation about the revitalization and continued health of downtown Columbia. Take that, General Sherman! — Patrick Wall
After a quiet summer, things ramped up in Five Points this fall: In October, a stray bullet struck Martha Childress, a young college student waiting on a cab near the Five Points fountain, paralyzing her. It was just the latest violent incident in the college-oriented nightlife district. University of South Carolina President Harris Pastides warned students to stay away from Five Points after midnight. Meanwhile, Richland County Sheriff Leon Lott went after The Library, a Five Points bar he said was a haven for gang members.
Crime is a concern citywide. And although statistics show crime steadily dropping, in September, Lott told Free Times that the city’s gang problem is resurging. Critics say crime elsewhere in Columbia gets ignored while all eyes are on Five Points. — Eva Moore
Things the City of Columbia doesn’t mind you buy on the two or so blocks where Devine Street turns into Garners Ferry Road: greasy fast food and predatory payday loans. Things it does mind: sex toys. Shortly after Taboo opened in an old Taco Bell storefront on Devine in late 2011, city leaders began their crusade to get rid of it. They hired an out-of-state attorney to rewrite zoning laws — Taboo was the city’s only licensed adult business — and hosted public hearings attended only by a small but very vocal minority. Taboo was grandfathered in under the new zoning laws for two years; then, in early December, the city denied Taboo’s request to stay open longer to recoup expenses. Taboo has now sued the city in federal court in an attempt to stay open past Dec. 31, when its business license is set to expire. — Patrick Wall
In April, Columbia Police Chief Randy Scott held a rambling, teary press conference and resigned, citing a diagnosis of post-traumatic stress disorder. He may well have been struggling with PTSD, but the department was struggling, too, with pending lawsuits alleging employment discrimination and Scott facing the usual Columbia city politics.
Scott’s interim replacement, Ruben Santiago, was immediately plunged into a scandal as one of his top cops accused Santiago of a “black ops” plot to plant drugs and a gun on Senior Assistant City Manager Allison Baker. (SLED finished its investigation into those allegations; the report’s been sent to another circuit’s solicitor to handle.) But Santiago created his own problems, too: After a Facebook user urged the city to focus on violent offenses rather than marijuana enforcement, Santiago wrote, “we have arrested all the violent offenders in Five points. Thank you for sharing your views and giving us reasonable suspicion to believe you might be a criminal, we will work on finding you.” (Santiago told Free Times, “It was a late night situation.”)
The city’s currently looking for a permanent police chief. — Eva Moore
The summer of 2012 saw the disappearance of Gabrielle Swainson rock Ridge View High School — where the 15-year-old was by all accounts a popular, model student — and its surrounding North Columbia community. The summer of 2013 saw Freddie Grant, 53, lead Richland County sheriff’s deputies to the grave in the woods near Elgin where he’d buried his former girlfriend’s daughter after kidnapping, sexually assaulting and asphyxiating her. A Fifth Circuit judge has sentenced Grant to 30 years in prison, accepting a plea deal that gained Grant’s daughter, an alleged co-conspirator, release from Alvin S. Glenn Detention Center. — Porter Barron Jr.
When an abusive parent puts his or her child in mortal danger, reasonable people expect that the state will intervene for the safety of the child. But what happens when social workers — instead of being encouraged to do whatever it takes to get kids the help and support they need — are pressured to get kids out of the social services system altogether?
That’s what South Carolina is finding out right now. Years of budget cuts at the state Department of Social Services have left the agency overworked and understaffed, with the highest average caseload per worker in the country. Now, critics say agency director Lillian Koller is exacerbating the problem by trying to cut the number of children in foster care in half, a policy critics say sometimes put children directly in harm’s way. Koller says no such policy exists, but lawmakers — among them GOP Sen. Katrina Shealy of Lexington and Democratic Sen. Joel Lourie of Columbia — are skeptical and are looking into the agency’s record of dealing with the state’s most vulnerable children. — Dan Cook
In early 2012, South Carolina Republicans were abuzz over reports of people voting using the names of dead people. Attorney General Alan Wilson took to the national airwaves, saying “we know for a fact that there are deceased people whose identities are being used in elections in South Carolina.” The State Law Enforcement Division was called in to investigate. And then — nothing. Not only did SLED refuse to produce any documents related to its investigation, but officials at the agency wouldn’t even talk about it except to say it was an “ongoing investigation.” More than 18 months later, SLED finally responded to Free Times’ FOIA requests, releasing its report on the afternoon before the Fourth of July holiday. The verdict: There was no evidence of fraudulent voting whatsoever.
The Washington Post Factchecker column gave Attorney General Alan Wilson “four Pinocchios” for his earlier statements, writing, “More than anyone, he hyped these charges into certified ‘facts,’ even before any real investigation had taken place. Indeed, the miniscule percentage of alleged dead votes, out of the number cast, should have urged caution. Instead, he went straight to the television cameras—and then his office for months bottled up the report that revealed not a single claim was true.” — Eva Moore
Tuberculosis, rare enough in the United States today to seem like an extinct Dickensian pox, broke out at Ninety-Six Primary School in Greenwood County in May, infecting more than 100, including 53 school children. Ten kids actually developed full-blown TB cases, terrifying parents, who called out the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control for its slow response. Agency director Catherine Templeton acknowledged screw-ups in a heated S.C. Senate hearing but maintained that DHEC wasn’t to blame for the outbreak, which was traced to a school janitor. Fortunately, no deaths occurred, but the young survivors will have to disclose their TB status to employers and insurance providers for the rest of their lives. — Porter Barron Jr.
They’re going to build it. Now, they hope you’ll come. In December, the city’s Design/Development Review Commission approved plans for the Music Farm at Tin Roof, a 1,200- to 1,500-capacity music venue and beer garden in a currently vacant warehouse space in the heart of the Vista. Tin Roof, a Southeastern chain of bars, will manage the bar; Music Farm Productions, which runs the downtown Charleston venue of the same name, will handle the booking. The venue, which is tentatively scheduled to open in the summer of 2014, would give Columbia something it hasn’t had in several years — a reliable mid-sized music venue that can accommodate acts that typically bypass the Capital City for Athens, Chapel Hill and Charleston. But what’s unclear: Whether Columbia’s music audience can be engaged enough and willing to support acts at a $15 to $25 door charge on a consistent basis. We hope so. We’re tired of debating the decades-old conundrum of why Columbia doesn’t support live music. They’re building it, Columbia. Come. — Patrick Wall
By the time you read this, the Capital One Bowl will be over. (Free Times went to press before the game was played.) If the Gamecocks defeat the Wisconsin Badgers, then it’ll mark the third straight year South Carolina’s posted 11-win seasons. And even if the Gamecocks lose, it was still a good year for Carolina football: Even a meager 10 wins would extend the school’s streak of seasons with double-digit wins to three years; prior to 2011, Carolina had only won 10 football games in a season once, in 1984. Carolina looks to continue to be a winning program in the coming years, though it stands to lose some of its star players: Quarterback Connor Shaw, defensive end Chaz Sutton and cornerback Jimmy Legree are graduating; defensive linemen Jadeveon Clowney and Kelcy Quarles and cornerback Victor Hampton are all expected to turn pro. — Patrick Wall
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