Some York County Council members have been criticizing county employees in public meetings and emails after hearing complaints the county isn't business-friendly.
The criticisms include an email from Chairman Britt Blackwell that some analysts say undermined a county policy aimed at protecting county employees from the political pressure of elected council members.
Emails obtained by The Herald under the state's open records law show frequent, often friendly and cooperative exchanges between Blackwell and York County Manager Jim Baker. In them, Blackwell follows up on citizen complaints, checks on the status of meetings and expresses concerns.
But they also reveal Blackwell's mounting frustration at hearing what he describes as eight months of complaints about the difficulty of working with the county's engineering and planning departments.
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Opening York County to business has been the council's most vocal goal. That desire, Blackwell contends, has driven his reaction to what he has characterized as the county staff's inaction.
In an Aug. 3 email, Blackwell demanded improvement from Dave Pettine, director of the planning department, which guides growth, issues building and other permits, and inspects properties. The department is also responsible for enforcing federal, state, and local laws regulating development.
With the subject line "lack of business friendly attitude," Blackwell said in the email he was "disturbed" by complaints.
"Hearing nobody seems to care at the county, poor customer service, and what I am told is a very poor, anti-business attitude at your department is not acceptable," he wrote to Pettine.
He went on to outline the chain of command: "You work under Jim Baker who works for the Council. We will have business friendly county employees no matter what has to be done to achieve this. We all serve the citizens of York County ... and this Council knows who we work for."
He said it appears the council's intent "to make things better has been ignored. ... This cannot continue."
Blackwell then requests a flow chart of all employees in Pettine's department and their responsibilities and said he is "tired of hearing complaints and not knowing what position that person holds. ... This council has an obligation to make sure the citizens and businesses of York County are properly served and to make sure York County does become the most BUSINESS FRIENDLY COUNTY IN SOUTH CAROLINA."
Baker, who Blackwell copied along with the rest of the council, responded quickly, pointing out a need to discuss "an important dividing line" between council members asking staffers questions - which is OK - and directing what they do, which only Baker has authority to do. Respecting the difference protects staff decisions from political influence, Baker said.
In Blackwell's reply, he agreed, but warned of a "SERIOUS problem" if staff members continue to ignore the council's concerns.
"This is not about micromanaging," but about "an administration being sensitive to honest concerns expressed to councilmen."
Easy to 'be nice'
Blackwell said he had reached his "wits' end" by the time he wrote the email. Many weeks before, he'd requested a meeting with developers, builders and business people to discuss ways the county could be more user-friendly in dealing with customers in a timely and polite fashion. But staff members hadn't scheduled the meeting, and the complaints kept coming, he said.
Business people are "not saying, 'give us what we want,'" Blackwell said. "They're saying, 'Britt, things are delayed so long; time is money. We can't get straight answers.' It was the same kind of comments I kept hearing over and over again," he said.
The complaints weren't about having a specific project turned down, but "the process," Blackwell said.
The complaints council members hear most frequently include lengthy waits for issuing permits and approving site plans and fulfilling requirements to pass one inspection, then having to do more.
Some complaints come from established business people or developers who are "used to having things they have to do," and working off of lists, Blackwell said.
Their grievances get his attention, he said.
Some of the complaints Blackwell received were about staff not being polite, for which there's an "easy" solution: "Be nice," he said.
Contacting staff directly made Blackwell uncomfortable at first, he said.
Then he realized how much time Baker would spend funneling comments between the council and staff members. Blackwell limits his interaction to department heads, he said, mostly Pettine, with whom he met after the email exchange.
Pettine, Blackwell said, was trying to "change the culture" of the department.
Pettine said that he shares the council's goal of making York County more business-friendly and said he reiterates that objective to his staff frequently. Pettine has worked in the planning department since 2005 and became the acting director in 2010 in a round of layoffs that included 12 planning employees.
In response to complaints, Pettine said there's always room for improvement. His job is to "rally the troops" behind that effort. He encourages his staff toward more "creative" solutions to help move a project along - if it's within the letter of the law.
Knowing what happened to bring out a complaint helps him address it, he said.
In a November meeting with the council and staff members, Pettine asked for the council to give specifics about the complaints they're hearing.
A few came up, including a business owner given a violation notice on a sign that had been there for years, and another who had to move a toilet several inches before getting a certificate of occupancy.
Pettine answered that sometimes violations go unnoticed because the county doesn't police businesses. But if staff members receive a complaint, they look into it. If they find a violation, they're obligated to address it.
Staff members can't overlook known violations, he said. Doing so could cost them their licenses.
Baker said he didn't believe Blackwell was trying to do anything "improper" in writing the email.
And Baker said he would rather the council and staff members continue to talk rather than barring them from doing so. But that means that, from time to time, the line between what's appropriate communication and what's not blurs, Baker said.
The hope is, Baker said, everyone will learn from those moments, and "over time we adapt to each other."
But, "if the staff perceives that the council is bullying them, that's a very bad thing," he said.
Blackwell explained his tone in the emails as an attempt to "send a message" when the council's goals weren't being carried out.
"I'm not there to give the staff a hard time, but when the people are not treated properly, I'm there to try to deal with it," he said, adding that he is open to Baker's suggestions.
"If he says, 'Well, Britt, there's lines we don't want to cross - you kind of got close on that one,' I'll listen to him. My job is not to cause grief. My job is to make things better."
Despite tension between them, Baker and Blackwell describe their relationship positively.
Baker said they meet for lunch frequently to keep lines of communication open.
Blackwell said sometimes "there are going to be disagreements," but "Jim's probably one of the smartest county managers in the nation. I learn from him everyday."
"We'll bump heads at times because that's what happens when you have two very strong-willed people, but I have a tremendous regard for Jim, and his intelligence," he said.
No 'bright line'
The distinction Baker drew between council asking questions of staff and directing them lies at the heart of a common practice counties adopted following passage of the S.C. Home Rule Act in the 1970s, which gave counties the power to govern themselves.
York elects a county council, which sets policy and hires a county manager. The manager is solely responsible for directing staff and making personnel decisions. The manager also is charged with ensuring staff members implement the council's policies.
Some counties, including York, have policies - written or informal - outlining how elected leaders should interact with employees to prevent confusion about who is in charge of whom, said Rick Whisonant, professor of political science and history at York Technical College.
In York, it's not a written policy, just one Baker asks council to follow.
Overstepping the line is also "somewhat normal," Whisonant said. "Some councils (or their members) have a tendency to want to go in and deal more with personnel decisions and perhaps redirect their job description."
Blackwell's email could be construed as crossing the line intended to prevent that from happening, Whisonant said.
"The point is, you don't want that type of situation where everybody's looking behind their back," he said. "You want to make sure these lines of communication are clear."
It's important to avoid the "gray area" at "all costs" to protect the "legitimacy of the decision-making process," he said.
Karen Kedrowski, political science department chairwoman at Winthrop University, said, "To keep the lines of authority clear is important so rank-and-file employees are not confused about who you answer to and who has permission to hire and fire. ... Asking for information is one thing, but then being in fear for your job is another thing."
Kedrowski is a former member of the Culture and Heritage Commission, which the York County Council disbanded last year and replaced with all new members in a controversial shake-up of museum leadership.
Mark Tompkins, a professor of public policy and administration at the University of South Carolina, said, "There's not a bright line here."
"You run the risk of unfairness" when an elected leader goes around the county manager's authority and directs staff on behalf of a constituent, Tompkins said.
The email, which references two citizens Blackwell met with, does lie "somewhere in the gray area between council intruding in a particular event and council wanting to change the pattern and practice" of the department, he said.
On the other hand, the email's focus was "pretty close to a policy concern and not 'My good friend so-and-so didn't get what he wanted,'" he said. "Raising policy concerns is (the council's) job."
The gray area should raise a "warning flag on both sides that they need to pay attention to the process," Tompkins said. "It can be constructive, or it can be hurtful. That's a part of democracy. The tough part of it is to do that in a way that doesn't get bloody."
"Democracy is a little bit messy sometimes."