Council hopes policy change would quiet debates on future road-improvement plans

An attempt to keep road-improvement design in qualified hands may limit York County residents' access to information.

Controversy over the intersection design of Porter and Firetower roads has prompted County Manager Jim Baker to relegate presentations of "Pennies for Progress" road projects to the end of council meetings. The presentations would be less formal and not recorded or televised. The result would be fewer people on hand for the late-night discussion and no one watching later.

It's not illegal, said an official with the S.C. Press Association, which works to keep government open for the public. Council members are mixed on the benefits of this change.

"I don't know if I like it," Councilman Paul Lindemann said. "I don't like anything closed-door, but to save controversy like this one, I can see why they would do it."

The change comes on the heels of almost three years of debate over the intersection of Porter and Firetower roads that was finally settled last week.

The problems started in January 2005, when engineers proposed making the intersection into a T-shape. Its location outraged property owners who complained to council members about their land being cut up.

After heated debate in March, the council voted 5-2 to ignore engineers and keep the original Y-shaped intersection largely the same. But the issue came up again this fall when Rock Hill school board officials asked the council to look at the impact and safety of the intersection with a new school going in nearby. County staff recommended last week to keep the intersection as voted in March.

Baker wants to move presentations by Capital Management and Engineering on the pros and cons of designs for Pennies for Progress projects, York County's 1-cent sales tax road-improvement program.

These changes will ensure the council understands the issues before they get called by residents, Baker said. Televising these presentations limits the county's ability to tell affected residents at a time when their questions can be answered, Baker wrote in his recommendation.

While the council needs to look out for the best interests of the community, Baker noted it's time consuming and often counterproductive for the council to vote on elements of a project.

Some council members agree with changing these presentations, saying it will give them more time to look at the individual projects. Council Chairman Buddy Motz said discussing road projects after the meeting will provide more time for the road changes.

"During the meeting, we're distracted by other agenda items and not focused on the presentation," he said.

Bill Rogers, executive director of the S.C. Press Association, said it's legal to present after the meeting and not televise it. But in terms of perception, he said, it could look like the council is hiding something.

"It's a political decision -- so the public can react as they see fit," Rogers said. "They're sort of thumbing their nose at the public, but it's not illegal."

But Councilman Tom Smith said that's not the case.

"We're not trying to hide anything; it's not fair to us to see it for the first time on the screen. It gives us no time to react as a council to anything."

For example, Smith said a presentation could feature three alternatives for a road, with one option cutting through an existing house. It may be the straightest route but not the most practical, he said.

But the landowner watching the council broadcast at home could see the road on their property and react without all the information, Smith said.

If it isn't televised, the county can talk to affected property owners first, Smith said.

Pennies for Progress projects have been slow-starting and financial issues have plagued the 10-year life of the program.

Some council and staff members want to take a more active role in how projects are designed and executed, Smith said.

Public hearings on the new road alignments still would be held, and council members would receive reports with the final proposed designs and reasons for changes, Baker said.

"The council won't have to debate or vote on any of these individual choices," Baker said. "Instead, they can simply choose to accept the report."

Staff recommendations for designs would proceed unless the council has a strong, specific objection.

Motz said the council learned it's best to leave intersection design to the engineers.

"It's very costly to detour from an original design, and you come into issues that cost more when you make changes," Motz said. "I think all of us learned a lesson from that."

Contracts for the work still would go before the council for approval as they do now, and staff would ask the council on broad road issues, including balancing the budget.

Baker said the council doesn't need to vote on changing these procedures.