Sunday, March 28, 2010

“Did You Just Say ‘Potsdam?’”

Grant Robertson won’t tolerate fiscal irresponsibility ...or lactose
By Todd Morehead

Politically speaking, Grant Robertson is the antithesis of a run-of-the-mill Columbia insider. Capitalizing on his creative thinking, staunch ideals and openness to ideas, the Aaron and Grant 2010 campaign has fashioned him into a viable contender for Tameika Isaac Devine’s at-large city council seat. Some believe he could be this election’s dark horse if a galvanized force of disenfranchised young voters head to the municipal polls on April 6.
Columbia City Paper recently caught up with Robertson and attempted to catch a glimpse of the man behind the infamous muttonchops.

COLUMBIA CITY PAPER: Many in Columbia, this newspaper and current mayoral candidates included, have called for an end to the city’s longstanding policy of awarding taxpayer-funded grants and contracts to entities associated with city board members and employees. The questionable dealings over the years –some that involve sitting city council members—are too numerous to name here. What would you say to disenfranchised voters who are tired of this behavior? Why should those voters pull the lever for you on April 6? And what can city government do to get its own hand out of the cookie jar?

GRANT ROBERTSON: I find the lack of coverage of these known “back room” deals in most media outlets to be alarming. It's not just about the philosophical dilemma of right and wrong—it is illegal! Punishments need to be doled out accordingly. In fact, Steve Benjamin recently released a treatise on transparency which, amazingly enough, echoing what Aaron and I have been saying since January. Of course, he received the laud by the local television stations for his vision and we were once again called drunks. Three things about me: 1.) I believe that cookies are to be enjoyed with milk, 2.) I am lactose intolerant, and 3.) I am jealous of people who are not—so I will do my best to keep anyone and everyone from eating cookies.

CCP: Let’s shift gears away from the anti-cookie thing. That’s political suicide. Speaking of that, if you ever visit former councilman E.W. Cromartie in federal prison, what advice will you ask of him?

GR: He always had really nice suits. I'd probably ask for his tailor. ...Probably not his accountant, though.

CCP: How are your taxes coming along this year?

GR: They... They're coming along.

CCP: You were notably absent at the recent Southeastern Beard and Moustache competition in Charleston. What gives?

GR: I just really don't like facial hair. It is a disgusting and abhorrent feature of the human anatomy that I just cannot reconcile. I mean, I have bearded friends, I really do; and they are still my friends. I just don't accept their choice in lifestyle. Not to mention that as D-List local celebrities, Aaron and I were actually the Masters of Ceremonies at this year's “What's Love” art festival, which was the same night as the Southeastern Beard and Moustache competition.

CCP: Public transportation has been a cornerstone of your platform. Where do we start to fix our current system?

GR: We tax people. Tax the hell out of them. (Laughter) No, just kidding. Well, not the first part, actually. We've found that with an annual car tax of about $5, we can keep the buses operational at a minimal standard. The alternative to this is to not fund them at all and lose all of our public transportation. The interesting thing is that when this happens we lose our current EPA rating, costing every citizen in Columbia $40 annually. The math isn't too hard here; we can pay around $5 and have a working bus system and cleaner air, or pay $40 and lose both.

CCP: Your campaign has stated that the city needs to quit raiding water and sewer funds to patch the city budget, especially considering recent water contamination issues and the continued flooding in Five Points. What can city council do to plug the leaks in the budget without pulling from other important funds?

GR: It all really goes back to accountability and transparency. Our new city manager is doing a good job of repairing the budget where it is—and honestly, I think that the amount of attention that we are all giving to it is going a long way to motivate present and future council to come up with creative solutions. Having truth in accounting, though, is the most important thing. As of now, our water payments are being treated as taxes rather than fees, meaning that the money we pay in does not necessarily go to water, but to anything in the budget that “needs” it. Simply having money go where it is supposed to go will plug these “leaks.”

CCP: If elected, being a public official will open your day-to-day life to more scrutiny. Say I had been digging around,, say, a fictional reporter, hypothetically, dug around in your curbside garbage cans at 2:00 a.m. last Wednesday morning in search of pill bottles and strip club receipts. What might he –or she—find? Now is the time to air it, Grant. Just get it off your chest...

GR: I can pretty much guarantee you that you don't want to go rummaging through my trash. You're going to find a lot of chicken wing bones, Shlitz cans, and saturated kitty litter. The worst things that I do are taped and aired on the Internet. My mom still calls Drinking in the Morning “that show you smoked cigarettes on.” ...And I have a confession to make. I actually don't smoke at all. I can't. If I do my lungs will collapse and I will die.
I was a two-pack-a-day smoker all through and after college. When I decided to quit two years ago because my snoring got so bad that I was waking myself up, I started taking the drug Chantix. It worked amazingly and, suddenly, my lungs were too. They worked so well, in fact, that they started pushing up more tar and mucus from my lungs than my bronchial tubes could handle and all but completely blocked my airflow. After spending a day in the ER, I talked to my doctor, who informed me that this happens to one percent of people who stop smoking. Before I left he added, “I bet you wish you hadn't quit now, eh? Just kidding! Don't start smoking again.”
Sorry, that was kind of a tangent, but I did want to get that off my chest. I also haven't been back to see him since that time ...mainly, though, because I don't have health insurance.

CCP: I can’t believe you actually answered that one. Very informative. Okay, complete this word association exercise. The first thing that pops into your head:

GR: You're trying to make me sick aren't you?

CCP: Pot:

GR: ...sdam

CCP: Sustainable:

GR: Conference. ...Wait, did you just say Potsdam?

CCP: Rickenmann:

GR: Waste disposal

CCP: Slathering:

GR: Sausage gravy

CCP: Transparent:

GR: Not sausage gravy

CCP: Art Bar doorman:

GR: Huggable

CCP: How could the city effectively draw green businesses to our area?
GR: A.) Take down the Confederate Battle Flag from the State House grounds. B.) ...Take down the Confederate Battle Flag.
I'm going to lay this right on the table. There is absolutely no good reason to have it flying, and every argument I hear for it to stay there is either rooted in racism or misinformation. In the Sixties, when the flag was put atop the State House it only was supposed to be flown for four years: the length of the war. It's important to note, too, that this is not THE Confederate Flag; there are dozens of Confederate Flags. This is, in fact, a Confederate Battle Flag. Soldiers fighting in the Civil War would not have been wrapped in this flag, they would not have been saluting this flag, they would have been actively fighting under this banner. When soldiers were buried, they would have been buried under their own state's flag. Take it down, fold it up, and put it in a museum. The war is over and our state is not fighting the Union anymore. The flag is only acting as a barrier to green businesses and progress in general.

CCP: When was the last time you ran shrieking? And from whom or what were you fleeing?

GR: Aaron does this thing where he will try and sneak up on me in the darkroom at the F-Stop. I say “try” because normally, he does a really awful job at it. Picture, if you will, an adult man in a three piece suit, walking crouched around a darkroom, being careful to not to be sighted by another grown adult man singing Stevie Wonder songs at the top of his voice while printing pictures. Also, the crouching man giggles uncontrollably. I think it was back in November when he was actually successful—he popped up right behind me, like in a bad Sci-Fi horror movie. It scared the bejeezus out of me but he later admitted to me that he was impressed by the manliness of my howl.

CCP: Are Tax Increment Financing (TIF) districts a truly viable solution to revamp underserved areas of the city? If not, what do you propose?

GR: It really depends. In a place like the Vista, it worked very well. The Vista was an empty warehouse district and is now a thriving entertainment district. The use of a TIF district there was a huge boon to the city government as well as the people of the city. The proposed TIF districts at North Main and on USC's campus however are terrible ideas.
The blighted area of North Main is predominately a residential area, a lower income residential area, in fact. To put a TIF district here is absolutely irresponsible. The people who live there will be protected for about 20 years from an increase in taxes, but as is the nature of a tax increment financing district, the taxes in the area (if it even works) have been incrementing the entire time, and when that protective bubble bursts, these residents will have an incredible tax burden that they most likely will not be able to afford. Property taxes will sky rocket, and more importantly, rent will sky rocket. The TIF district will have not built up the blight, but will have simply displaced it.
The problem with blight is that there is no quick fix—it has to be a slow and deliberate process. I would propose deferring business licensing fees for community enhancing small businesses that come from within the community: small grocery stores, bakeries, butchers, coffee shops, arts related stores. Small businesses that are run by people in the same community work to foster strong relationships in the community.
The USC TIF is a stupid idea, too, but for a completely different reason. The University's property is non-taxable; how in the world is the City of Columbia supposed to make the money back to repay the TIF bond? Last time I checked, zero times anything is still zero. As for the areas that are not the University's property, I have to ask, why should we trust the current administration's design for a project as ambitious as Innovista? Their incompetence in just the [developer] hiring process should be proof enough that they do not have the business sense to develop something as grandiose as what they're planning. The slew of empty buildings on campus that they've built should be another strong testament to the future failure of Innovista. Bad economy? No. Poor planning.
Where are the fluff questions here? Noelle Phillips at The State asked me what my favorite book was—couldn't you do something like that?

CCP: Okay. How about this one: To prove yourself to blue-collar voters on the outskirts of the city who may not feel a kinship to a downtown candidate: Have you ever showered at a truck stop, sold Christmas trees and/or fireworks as a second job, tried to pick up a woman at a bar while openly bleeding from a head wound or do you have any friends or family members with Looney Tunes themed tattoos that also incorporate the Confederate Flag?

GR: I was really worried until the end there—yeah, I mean, I have a Tweety Bird tattoo on my ankle, and while it's not a true Confederate Flag, it uses the same motif. It's in the shape of a heart, with Abby's name spelled out in barbed wire.

CCP: At some point before announcing your candidacy, you must have said to yourself, “That’s it, damn it, I’m going to roll up my sleeves, hitch up my britches, and get involved in city government to make a change!” What inspired you to run?

GR: I've followed national politics from the time that I could vote—regrettably, it wasn't really until I got out of college and opened my own business that I turned my attention towards local elections. This city has not only been mismanaged for years and years, but the people of this city have been taken advantage of by those in power. I find it disturbing that during this election cycle, we suddenly have these plans and goals to fix neglected parts of town... programs that look and sound great at first glance, but will ultimately be destructive to the city as a whole. It's the typical smoke and mirrors of career politicians. I have to make this plea to the people of our city: do not let real estate developers and lawyers run our government any longer. Private interests, rather than the public interest, control their decisions; we need everyday people in government. We need those outside of the political machine to get our city back on track.

CCP: Win or lose, what does your running for city council, in itself, say to other young citizens of Columbia?

GR: We're doing our best to set an example for everyday people to run for office. It's clear that we've shaped the debate substantially and changed the overall tone of the race for the better. Whereas all the candidates pretty much sounded the same at the beginning, we've brought up issues that probably never would have even come up otherwise. We've acted as sort of a litmus test for the other candidates, in that we can say things without worrying about angering our constituents because, frankly, we don't have a defined constituency.
It is imperative that we always have citizen challengers, it not only brings fresh ideas to the table, but it also creates accountability for the 'front running' candidates. I'd like to make a second appeal to the readers: If this is in line, at all, with what you, yourself believe—please tell all of your friends and family to at least read more about mine and Aaron's policies at If you're sick of the status quote, and you want lasting change from within the city, go out on April 6th and vote for Grant Robertson for City Council at-large. For those of you who still don't know what 'City Council at-large' means, it's kind of like 'Mayor-Lite' and anybody in the City of Columbia can vote for me.

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