April 21, 2016. The Post and Courier.
Both those asking the questions and answering them felt Monday night’s Nehemiah Action Assembly bore fruit — despite disagreement over the tension and repetition involved in the questioning.
After being grilled on police policies and procedures before an audience of more than 2,000 at Mount Moriah Baptist Church, Charleston officials said they were glad they went — and would go again.
“I’m in concert with them on the overall goals,” Charleston Mayor John Tecklenburg said. “My preferred style is a little more collaborative, but would I do it again? Sure.”
City Councilman James Lewis agreed, saying that members of the Charleston Area Justice Ministry “have some good ideas, but they’re just a little too pushy. We’ll do what we can do to work with them.”
Monday’s event marked the fourth annual gathering in which the interfaith Charleston Area Justice Ministry questioned local officials about a host of social justice issues, from school discipline to traffic stops to wage theft to police audits.
The Rev. Nelson Rivers III, who posed questions to some officials, including Tecklenburg, said he felt the most important thing accomplished was when Charleston County School Board members committed to reviewing the discipline systems used in local schools.
“With four (School Board) members, we have to believe there’s a good chance for the district to do what they agreed to do four years ago,” he said. “That was a good thing. I wish more board members had come.”
The event’s format — in which officials are asked to respond “yes” or “no” before elaborating briefly on their response — has drawn criticism, and some prominent officials opted not to participate this year, including North Charleston Mayor Keith Summey, Police Chief Eddie Driggers and Charleston Police Chief Greg Mullen.
Rivers defended the format and the tension it involves.
“It’s a human instinct that folks like to avoid tension, but in justice work, it’s almost unheard of that change or positive work can come without tension,” Rivers said. “Some of the tension has to happen.”
City Councilman Dean Riegel said he was apprehensive about the format and wondering what risk he was taking to appear on stage there, but he ultimately decided to attend because “I’m a dialogue kind of guy.” And he was glad he did.
“I thought the audience was very appreciative that elected officials would agree to come into that format, given some of the potential risks for exposure,” he said. “None of that bothered me. I can just about roll with anything. What did bother me a little bit was a lack of participation by a number of my colleagues and elected officials. Maybe they all had good reasons.”
Riegel said some of the issues raised at the forum will be discussed at City Council’s next Public Safety Committee.
Tecklenburg said he plans to conduct an audit of the city’s police departments — and other major city departments — but the firm doing the audit will be chosen through a competitive process, not based on the Justice Ministry’s urging. And even if he were inclined to choose their contractor, the mayor doesn’t have the authority to spend $80,000 to $100,000 without City Council’s consent.
“I welcome their input, but at the end of the day, we’ve got to figure out the best path and practical path forward to make improvements,” he said. “I’m not going to criticize their questions necessarily, but they just didn’t anticipate that we have our own procedures and all that we have to live by.”
The public officials were given the questions beforehand, but some were asked the same question several times in a row, to see whether their answer would change —a tactic that didn’t please Lewis.
“You don’t badger people when you ask questions. If you want public officials to work with you, you’ve got to treat them with respect,” he said. “I think they could do it just a little bit better. … When the person answers the question, they just need to leave it at that.”
Rivers said each year, organizers tweak the event to improve it, “and we’ll also look at how many times you have to ask the same question to see if you get the same answer.”
He said in retrospect, asking a question three times might be enough. “Six wasn’t necessary,” he added.
Tecklenburg said while the questioning might have been tough, the reception he and his wife Sandy received was otherwise warm. “It kind of reenforced that participating was a good thing,” he said.