Councilmembers cite being left out on important decisions

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As a reason to change to form of government

By David Meade

Williamston Councilmembers Rockey Burgess and Otis Scott both said Tuesday that the issue of changing the town’s current form of government came up primarily because “council is not being informed on certain things.”

Burgess said he doesn’t feel strongly about which form of government the town operates under, but is more concerned about the process if voters do change it.

Burgess said that the issue brought up during the council meeting Monday was “a surprise” and said, “We definitley need to proceed with caution.”

Burgess said he also wants to be notified and have input on expenditures. He said the recent sidewalk improvement project in Mineral Spring Park was an example of the mayor making decisions without involving council or having funding approved for a project before it begins. “The mayor spent money in the park without council appropriation,” Burgess said. “We found out about it after the fact.”

There was also an issue about charging for parking at a recent event.

Burgess said he “took a lot of heat” about the decision which he was not a part of, even though it involved charging for parking on town property. “If there is a problem, we should anticipate the backlash and whether we are willing to live with it,” he said.

Burgess said he does not think the mayor’s actions with council are intentional, but that the mayor is making decisions and then considering council and the ramifications as an afterthought.

Burgess said that Councilman Scott had done his homework on the issue and the timeline involved and felt that the issue could be placed on the ballot for voters to decide along with the general election. He added that it would not cost additional money to have it on the ballot. Burgess, who is up for re-election, said he would not make the issue of the form of government an issue in his campaign.

Burgess said he can see a valid point in why councilman Scott would want to change the form of government. He agreed with Scott’s statement when he said, “I can’t change the form of government, but the people ought to be able to decide.”

Burgess said that he also thinks town residents don’t understand the current form of government, citing that they often bring concerns, such as pothole repairs and other problems, to individual council members expecting them to get something done.

“People call their council member about a problem and don’t realize the we don’t have the authorization to get something done. All we can do is forward it to the mayor.”

Burgess said his main concern is having a plan in place if the voters do decide to change the form of government. “If the voters do change it, there needs to be a plan in place to go into effect when it takes place,” he said. “I want to know when it will go into effect.

He also said he wants council to be more involved but not to the extent that they are involved in the day to day operations of the town’s departments. “I dont want to be involved to that level,” he said, “as an unpaid supervisor.”

Burgess said that even if the form of government was changed, the mayor’s vision for the town would continue. “I think he has the majority of votes to continue programs like Main Street and others,” Burgess said.

Mayor Mack Durham is in his second year of a four year term as mayor.

Councilman Otis Scott made the original motion leading to the discussion during the council meeting Monday.

Scott said Council members were not being informed by the mayor on actions and issues affecting the town and that council was being overlooked.

“Council has no say so about what is going on,” he said Tuesday.

Under the current Strong Mayor Weak Council form of goverment, the mayor is the chief administrator of the town and makes most of the top decisions. Council acts as advisors and brings concerns and appropriates money through the budget process.

Scott said the recent park sidewalk project was an example of the mayor making a decision without it being discussed by council and without funding in place for the work being done.

Scott said he has “nothing against the job he (the mayor) is doing” but it is just that council is not being informed. “He is doing a good job,” Scott said. “It is being done the wrong way.”

During the council meeting, Scott said he wanted “to give the citizens of Williamston the opportunity to change it (the form or government) if they want to.”

Scott said he wanted to change the form of government to the strong council, weak mayor form. “Council needs to be involved in the things being done,” he said.

Town Attorney Lee Cole said there are three forms of government that could be considered.

According to Cole, the strong mayor form of government the town currently operates under gives executive power to the mayor and legislative power to the council.

Under the strong council form, council has executive and legislative powers with the mayor acting as chairman.

A third option is the council-manager form of government which give certain duties to the administrator or manager.

Following a lengthy executive session to get legal advice on the issue, Council voted 4-1 with the mayor opposed, to vote on an ordinance at the Sept. 8 meeting of council. Two ordinance options will be presented. A work session on the issue is scheduled for next Monday, Aug. 11 at 7 p.m.

Burgess said he wants to be informed and wants the public to be informed and said he hopes to have a representative of the Appalachian Council of Governments (ACOG) attend the meeting and present information on the different forms of government.

Williamston residents voted down an effort to change the form of government during the administration of former mayor Phillip Clardy. Council established the position of Town Administrator in an effort to rein in actions and expenditures of the mayor at that time.

The town operated with an adminstrator assisting Clardy during his final year and former mayor Carthel Crout during his term. The town still has guidelines in place should council decide they want an administrator to help run the town.

One of the first actions of newly elected mayor Mack Durham when he took office in 2012 was placing the former administrator on leave. Council eliminated funding for the adminstrator position several months later.