Railroad Presses for Lease

Council: Mayor Overstepped Boundaries

RIDGEWAY – Town Council voted 6-0 at their Dec. 11 meeting to discuss entering into a formal lease with Norfolk-Southern for the Cotton Yard Market in the center of town. Council will hold first reading of the $300 a year lease at their January meeting, but how the town came to be staring down the barrel of a lease for property that it had utilized for free for decades was the topic of some considerably heavy discussion. That discussion was prefaced by a review, offered by Councilman Russ Brown, of exactly what form of government Ridgeway operates under and how things appeared to have strayed from that format.

“We are a council form of government,” Brown said. “I want to make sure we’re all on the same page and that we understand how our form of government works.”

Referring to documents he said he acquired from the S.C. Municipal Association, Brown noted that “the mayor presides over meetings by tradition, performs ceremonial duties, calls special meetings . . . and acts and votes as a member of council. The mayor has no additional statutory authority beyond that of other council members.”

Brown said Mayor Charlene Herring had, on at least one occasion, sent out official correspondence without notifying Council. That point became paramount when talk turned to the Cotton Yard.

“This (the pending lease) all came about from contacting Norfolk-Southern,” Brown said, and while Herring countered that contact was made with the railroad company after she had received questions from members of the community, Brown added, “but there were also citizens who were against contacting Norfolk-Southern, and Council members here were against contacting Norfolk-Southern.”

Councilman Heath Cookendorfer said Council had indeed agreed to break off discussions with the railroad at Council’s last meeting.

“We were done with it,” Cookendorfer said, “but we did contact them and that’s kind of what woke the sleeping giant to where we’re at today with basically the demand to take on the lease, and I was kind of a little upset about that. That’s something we should have discussed as a council.”

Herring said she made initial contact with Norfolk-Southern several months ago after citizens had come to her with concerns about cars for sale being parked on the property for as long as six months at a time, while other citizens had questions about a company parking trucks on the lot.

“If citizens contacted you, under protocol you should have brought that to the Council and Council would say if we were going to contact Norfolk-Southern,” Councilman Donald Prioleau said.

Herring said that in the future, she would adhere to protocol, but followed that by asking, “As a right of a citizen or a mayor, why can’t you contact the railroad? This is in the heart of our town.”

“September it was brought up and in this room we said ‘do not bother Norfolk-Southern anymore, because they will put up a fence’,” Brown said. “They’ve threatened to do it before, and they’ll still do it if you bother them. Don’t toy with the railroad.”

Herring said she told Council at the September meeting that she would be pursuing questions about leasing the property from the railroad and no one objected.

“In September you didn’t have the lease,” Brown said. “The lease was presented in October. In October . . . but that had already got to the point where Norfolk-Southern sent a lease because there was communications back and forth.”

Herring said the Town had to have a copy of the proposed lease in order for the document to be reviewed by an attorney.

“Again, in the capacity of mayor you went to an attorney without Council (knowing about it),” Brown said.

But Herring said she also informed Council that an attorney would be reviewing the lease, and no one had objected to that either.

“But this conversation came from you, in the capacity of mayor, (talking) to Norfolk-Southern, which led to them providing a lease,” Brown said. “We, at every single meeting when Norfolk-Southern was brought up, we all said don’t bother Norfolk-Southern.”

Brown said the proposed lease had sat idle with the Town for a month. Then, during Council’s October meeting, Council reviewed the document and opted to let it stay that way. The day after the meeting, Brown said, Herring contacted Norfolk-Southern via email.

“Telling them we were not going to pursue a lease,” she said.

“After we said not to communicate,” Brown said. “And then they sent their email back, basically giving the Town the ultimatum that if we do not lease the property, accept responsibility for the lot, accept liability for the property, then they will have the lot fenced off and the buildings removed.”

Herring said Norfolk-Southern is currently reviewing all of their properties, and eventually Ridgeway would have been forced into an official lease. Several buildings, including the world’s smallest police station and the fire station, had been constructed on the property without permission from the railroad, and Herring said it simply was not right for the Town to continue to use the property without the blessing of Norfolk-Southern.

“Eventually this would have happened,” Herring said. “And this came sooner because I did ask some questions. But eventually it would have happened.”

Herring said the railroad company needed an answer as to the Town’s choice of direction on the lease, and she was only doing the courteous thing by letting them know Ridgeway was not interested in signing a lease.

“Again, back to the form of government discussion we just had,” Brown said, “we’re not a strong mayor form of government, and as a council we chose to let it lie.”

Cookendorfer said it would have been preferable to let the railroad force the issue, instead of the Town taking the lead.

“I think ya’ll are making the issue at the wrong point,” Herring said. “You made an issue about the form of government and I understand that, and I will tell you sometimes Charlene Herring errs because she is very compassionate about this town and wants to get things done. And I agree, we are a council and we will act as council. I think you’re pulling at straws now and you’re trying to blame (me) instead of doing the right thing. I’ve got the point and I think we need to move on. If you don’t want to sign the lease, don’t sign the lease.”

“You call it compassion, I call it total disregard for Council,” Brown said. “It’s not the end of the world that we’re going to have to lease the lot, but how it was handled. . . .”

Herring reiterated her point that had she not received questions from citizens about the lot she never would have contacted Norfolk-Southern in the first place. But Brown once more pointed out that an entirely different group of citizens had urged the Town to keep mum on its use of the property. At that point, Roger Herring had heard as much as he could stand from his seat in the audience.

“The Rufus Joneses of the community!” Roger Herring, a former Council member and husband of the mayor, erupted. Brown told Roger he was speaking out of order, but Herring continued his defense of the mayor.

“You don’t do the community organization she does,” Roger Herring said, even as the mayor brought down the gavel. “You (Council) don’t do what you’ve already agreed to do!”

As the mayor attempted to restore order to the small Council chambers, Roger Herring stormed out, slamming the door of the Century House behind him.

“Now, do we need any further discussion on it?” the mayor asked.

“I just wanted to bring it up now,” Brown said, “so the people who are going to be paying for that insurance and paying for that lease when they pay their taxes and their water bills, they know where their money is going and why.”