Equal Rights Amendment

More than 10 individuals spoke before council asking them to adopt a resolution during the public comments at the April 9 Mount Pleasant Town Council meeting. The resolution would request the State General Assembly pass two House bills to ratify a proposed amendment to the U.S. Constitution providing that equality of rights under the law must not be denied or abridged on account of sex.

“This non-binding resolution is about fairness for our children and our daughters. It does not limit the freedom or liberties of any individual or business. All it does is declare that we will not keep open a loophole to discriminate on the basis of sex,” said Ben Pogue. “But refusing to vote for this does bind us. It binds us to the notion and it binds each of you who votes against it to the notion that you want to keep open that loophole to discriminate on the basis of sex. This is about if we want to leave the door to discrimination open in our town. It’s about our legacy.”

Speakers varied from high school students to women’s rights advocates during the comments.

“I’m here to ask for your support of the Equal Rights Amendment. Twenty-four words that speak clearly for themselves,” said Melinda Hamilton, President of the League of Women Voters of the Charleston Area. “As we approach the 100 years of women’s suffrage it comes as a shock to many people that the U.S. Constitution does not guarantee women the same rights as men.”

Hamilton said the councilmembers are leaders in one of the fastest growing communities in the state and that their choice and values are important to South Carolina and the democracy of the United States. She urged them to support the resolution.

“Ninety-four percent of men and women believe that men and women should have equal rights. Eighty percent think the constitution already guarantees them. It does not,” said Barbara Fry, Leader of the Equal Means ERA Coalition.

During the Police, Judicial and Legal (PJL) Committee Report at the meeting, Mount Pleasant Mayor Will Haynie explained that the committee did not vote to move the resolution supporting the Equal Rights Amendment forward to council.

Haynie said a councilmember on the losing vote for their committee (Gary Santos) put this on the council agenda instead of bringing it back for further discussion, analysis and to get legal advice. Haynie said the State Legislative Counsel said they need legal advice before taking any action.

Haynie asked council to respect if a committee votes and there is more work to do before it moves forward. He says this way they can make informed decisions, look at every aspect for the town and do all work necessary before council votes.

The council passed a resolution requesting the State General Assembly pass a House bill entitled the Firefighter Cancer Bill. During the discussion about this resolution, prior to it passing, Haynie said he was advised by the Legislative Counsel of the General Assembly to seek legal advice before sending resolutions to Columbia.

Haynie said he wasn’t comfortable on the firefighter resolution, or any others at the moment since he got advice on their involvement of bills moving through the state. He also questioned if this bill would be decided during this legislative session.

“It is a two-year session and it sends a signal to the people in the statehouse that this big town of 87,000 people is standing behind their firefighters,” said councilmember Kevin Cunnane.

Cunnane said they always like to say they’re the fourth largest municipality and they have a little weight to throw around so they should do it.

“I would like to raise the point that our council has been in the business of issuing resolutions left and right. We issued a resolution on offshore drilling, hands-free driving and those are the two I can immediately recollect in my time. I think there’s been more. I don’t see why all of the sudden at this point in time there needs to be legal advice on a non-binding resolution that simply states a supportive statement from the town on behalf of a particular bill,” said councilmember G.M. Whitley.

Haynie said they’d never received legal advice from Legislative Counsel of the General Assembly until now and that may be their fault.

They passed the Firefighter Cancer Bill 6-2 with Haynie and councilmember Kathy Landing as the dissenting votes.

“Until we have more information on how this bill would obligate the local municipalities, I thought we should do more homework rather than pass the resolution now,” Landing shared. “We should absolutely do what is needed to support our firefighters and their families regarding their service, but a bill that could cost taxpayers substantial additional dollars related to health issues that may not have been caused by their work should be reviewed further. Again, I am not necessarily against the bill, I just believed from what was discussed that there were still unanswered questions.”

Next council discussed the ERA resolution. Haynie said there was still a lot to discuss on the resolution and made a motion to send it back to PJL committee. Bustos seconded the motion and the council held a lengthy discussion on the resolution.

Haynie said that the council was voted to focus on local issues not to spend an hour of every meeting discussing amendments to the Constitution of the United States. He said he felt they were getting away from what they were elected for as a municipal government.

“This impacts more than half of the citizens of the Town of Mount Pleasant. I don’t see the controversy here. This is simply 24 words stating equality for women,” Whitley said.

Councilmember Joe Bustos said that this was a partisan battle and not what the town council should spend time on. He withdrew his second to move the resolution to committee and stated that he would not vote on the resolution.

Councilmember Jim Owens recited a statement about equal justice with a conclusion that they should remember the last four words of the Pledge of Allegiance says ‘and justice for all’, not in justice for some. Other members of council stated their opinions on the resolution during the conversation.

Owens made a motion to approve the resolution. No one made a second to his motion. O’Rourke made a motion to send the resolution back to PJL Committee for the purpose of finding wording of a resolution or statement on the council’s opinion. Landing seconded his motion.

The resolution was sent back to committee on a 6-2 vote. Brimmer and Bustos both abstained from the vote. The PJL Committee will review the resolution at their May meeting.

Council conduct

Discussion of town council conduct was an agenda item at the April 9 meeting. Bustos began the discussion by calling the council a family and said from time to time things don’t go right within the family. He explained that it’d be nice to go in a back room to air everything out, come to agreement and come back out. Bustos explained they are a public body and they can’t do that because the public has a right to know.

“This distresses me to even have to do this in this setting, but we have a (council) member and I’ve sent everyone an email so they know I’m talking about Mr. Cunanne,” Bustos said.

Bustos said that there have been several incidents with Cunnane name calling in public with staff and residents present that he thought was inappropriate. He continued by saying that he’s not happy with the taunting going on or the argumentative nature of things within council.

“I don’t know what the fix is. This is the second bite of the apple for this with Mr. Cunnane. Somehow we need to restore civility or bite our tongues or just walk away. But let’s not get into name calling,” Bustos asked.

Bustos said he’s involving all of council to look at this and said the email he sent them explains what was said. He’d like Cunnane’s word he won’t engage in that behavior again so the council doesn’t have to have this conversation a third time.

Cunnane responded by saying he agreed that it was ridiculous they were discussing this. He said the mayor and Bustos were both good guys in their own ways; however, his oath of office as a council member doesn’t require him to withhold his opinions about them or any issue he sees fit to comment on.

Cunnane said nothing requires him to leave his right to free speech at the door of Town Hall and urged council to tread lightly on these matters.

“If these allegations of alleged bullying aren’t detained and action is taken against me, then it is only fair that I could turn around and accuse fellow council members of the same treatment. And there has been plenty,” Cunnane said. “This slippery and petty slope would go both ways.”

He reminded the council he has constitutional right to free speech, can approach elected officials and speak his mind whether they like what he is saying or not. Cunnane said that no government official should try to infringe upon these rights.

“I think it’s time for the entire council to recognize that this is nothing more than endless petty theatrics designed for political gain.” Cunnane said.

He said it would be illegal to take public action to restrict speech or to use official power to restrict constitutional rights outside of a meeting.

Haynie responded saying he was the one the invective was hurled at in the committee room out of session.

“I guess Mr. Cunnane, that what we’re hearing is that any plea from us for civility, for not calling us names when you disagree with us that impune our character is falling on deaf ears,” Haynie said.

Haynie said if he’d heard any council member call him what he was called in front of the public, council and staff; he would have asked council to address it. He said name calling when there is a disagreement is beneath the dignity of the town and the people who voted for them. Haynie said the dignity of holding public office, free speech or not, that they’ve raised to a higher standard especially when they’re in town hall, acting as council members.

Haynie explained he’s not asking for any punitive or Roberts Rules actions to be taken, he just asked that they be civil when they disagree and not call each other names.

“You don’t know me to call me what you called me the other day. You don’t know my life story. You don’t know what I have done and I think it was out of order,” Haynie said.

“Mr. Cunnane called the mayor a ‘bigot’ at a previous committee meeting. He called the mayor a ‘sissy’ following a council meeting. To me, it was an obvious attempt to belittle and bully the mayor,” Bustos shared with the Moultrie News outside of council.

Cunnane could not be reached for comment in response to this statement by the time of publication.