Thursday, August 18, 2016 In The News · News

SPA poll raises even more questions

by Andy Hollis

From the Post & Courier editorial board: SPA poll raises even more questions

Six months ago, the State Ports Authority board learned that the number of cargo shipments had dropped. In response, board members discussed looking for unnecessary or ill-advised expenses to outside contractors for legal, political lobbying and public relations work.

Now the SPA is paying $35,000 to one of those contractors to conduct a statewide poll of residents for reasons that are at best unclear and maybe even unwarranted.

The poll is being done on behalf of a state agency, but the SPA refuses to tell the public what questions are being asked. That’s a particularly dubious position for a state agency to take under any circumstances. And the lack of transparency plants doubts about whether the poll is intended to elicit a specific response.

Plus, the subjects brought up in the survey raise questions of their own.

A Post and Courier reporter who happened to be among those questioned in the telephone survey, for example, was asked his opinion about the Coastal Conservation League and its director, Dana Beach.
“It seems strange, inappropriate and even slightly conspiratorial that the SPA would spend public dollars polling people about what they think of a public interest group, and even stranger about an individual — me,” Mr. Beach said.

“They owe us an explanation that is more specific than a generic boilerplate statement.”

Indeed they do. The SPA statement indicates that the poll, being done by political consultants Richard Quinn and Bob McAlister, is intended to gauge how well its contracted services are doing. Those contractors include Mr. Quinn’s firm.

And the SPA claims it is keeping the questions secret because of “competitive reasons.”

It is difficult to see the competitive nature of asking for people’s opinion on Charleston Mayor John Tecklenburg, North Charleston Mayor Keith Summey and the SPA cargo terminal being built at the former Navy base.

The poll also asks about cruise ships and the controversial terminal the SPA wants to build with the city of Charleston’s support. Environmentalists and preservationists oppose the project, contending it would be harmful to the environment and to the historic neighborhoods nearby.

Indeed, the local cruise ship debate has drawn the attention of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, which put Charleston on its watch list of endangered places because of potential ill effects to the historic city.

A court challenge to the cruise terminal by environmental, preservation and neighborhood groups is scheduled to go before the S.C. Court of Appeals in November. Who can imagine how the polled opinions of people in the Upstate or Midlands would help clarify this hotly disputed Charleston issue?

The SPA has paid more than $8.1 million to 23 contractors over the past three fiscal years, according to documents obtained by The Post and Courier under the S.C. Freedom of information Act. More than half was for legal services, such as real estate transactions, litigation over the cruise terminal, and public finance issues. The rest of the money went for lobbying and public relations.

SPA president and CEO Jim Newsome has credited consultants with improving the SPA’s image statewide. In this instance, the result might not be quite so rosy.

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