During my decade-long tenure as chairman of Beaufort County Council, my overarching mission was to bring a level of transparency to our process, as well as make it clear to the electorate that we, as a body, held ourselves to a high ethical standard.
Not only was this how government at all levels should function, but it also had the practical effect of creating a level of trust between the folks and their County Council.
This relationship of trust between the residents and their government made it possible for us, through referendum, to collaborate with the stakeholders to undertake some impressive and necessary projects.
We widened and refined our main evacuation route, Highway 278, and built sections of the Bluffton Parkway and connected it to Highway 278 in a rational manner. Highway 170 was upgraded and the essential bridge across Broad River was replaced, as were other failing bridges on Highway 46.
We asked the public to join with us in continuing and expanding the innovative Rural and Critical Lands Preservation Program, to not only save from development those places not suitable or appropriate for development, but those places that were essential to protecting the estuarine water quality on which much of the prosperity of our part of the Lowcountry was based.
As I made my transition to the House of Representatives, I was prepared to go from a decade of leadership to being just another freshman member. Much to my surprise, the leadership in the House was not only intimately familiar with what we had accomplished in Beaufort County, but was interested in how we had done these seemingly impossible things.
When I told them that our constituents trusted us, leadership was skeptical but interested. My appointment to Judiciary Committee allowed me to share my thoughts on the salutary effects of intentional transparency and stoutly ethical behavior.
The new Speaker, Jay Lucas, appointed me to the Ethics Study Committee, and I was elected chairman of the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) subcommittee.
I later was the primary sponsor of the FOIA reform bill in the House, and was appointed to the Conference Committee charged with resolving differences between the House and Senate versions of the FOIA reform.
As a result of my work, and the work of many others in the House of Representatives, there is an emerging understanding that trust is the basis of functional government. If there is confidence that elected officials are doing the people’s business and not their own, the electorate will give us the benefit of the doubt.
In that protected space, much that is necessary and proper can then be accomplished. If it feels like we are all on the same team, then America is back in business.
Finally, as reluctant as I am to weigh in on the work of my former County Council colleagues, I am still an attentive resident and care deeply for my home place. In my view, the matter of the Graves property is an example of how we become disoriented when we lose sight of our responsibilities to personal ethics and institutional transparency.
In light of recent revelations, the purchase of the Graves farm, in whole or part, given current comps, and especially as a Rural and Critical Lands Preservation project, is a profound mistake.
The issue of recusals was troubling, as was the persistent suggestion that the purchase be made with the last of the Rural and Critical Lands Preservation monies. This would effectively end one of the most effective programs of its kind in the country, by essentially betraying the trust of all who, by referendum, overwhelmingly supported the program for so many years.
Trust is amazingly powerful but also very fragile. It took us over a decade to build and perhaps one vote to destroy.
Weston Newton is the representative for District 120 in the State House of Representatives.