Approves ordinance to set referendum on changing form of government
By David Meade
During their regular monthly meeting Monday, three Williamston Town Council members pushed forward with their efforts to have the mayor be more responsive to council by changing the form of government the town operates under.
With a 3-2 vote, council approved first reading on an ordinance setting a referendum on the question. Councilmembers Rockey Burgess, David Harvell and Otis Scott voted in favor of the referendum, while Councilman Tony Hagood sided with Mayor Mack Durham to leave the issue as it is.
Councilman Scott wasted no time making a motion to pass first reading on the issue and to hold second reading in two weeks at a special called meeting. Councilman Hagood seconded the motion for discussion, of which there was considerable.
Councilman Burgess again explained his reasoning for pushing for the change from the current strong mayor form of government.
Stating that he didn’t want to be in charge and the issue was not a power grab, Burgess sated the current mayor has charge of day to day operations but added, “I have been left out on certain things.”
Burgess said he has residents questioning why he as a councilman didn’t know about certain things affecting the town. He stated that council has the responsibility to pass the budget and ordinances but has no authority in the day to day operations.
He said that a recent online survey he conducted on his Facebook page received 52 responses and seventy-four percent of those were in favor of changing the town’s form of government to a strong council, meaning all five members of council, including the mayor, are responsible for the day to day operations of the town.
Burgess said that by moving forward residents will have a better understanding about the current form of government. “‘At the very least you will understand this form of government,” he said.
Councilman Scott said he agreed and that it is the residents call whether to make the change or not. Scott said that currently when residents complain to him about a problem, there is little he can do. “I have to go through the mayor to get things done,” he said. “I should be able without having to chase the mayor down.”
Harvell said that he is in favor of changing the form of government, mainly for the same reasons the other two councilmembers have expressed. Harvell said that he has not been informed by the mayor on projects the town is involved in and has had many residents complain to him and ask why certain things were done.
Councilman Hagood said if the town pursued the change, he would encourage a forum so that residents are informed. He pointed out the once a change is made, it is four years before it can be addressed again.
Burgess said going through the process would provide education and the public would get a better understanding of the town’s governing process, however he did express concern that it may be a small sampling of the town’s residents that actually come out to a special election on the referendum.
“I would like to get the largest sampling,” Burgess said. “It is a drastic change in the way the town is run.”
Mayor Durham said he opposed the change and acknowledged there have been communication problems. He said he has reached out to individual council members and the media to have weekly meetings with him. “We are moving forward in a very positive way in Williamston,” the mayor said. “Politics have been interjected and I will do my best to remove them.”
Durham said that the Master Plan the town will be working on soon will set initiatives and take the politics out of budgeting plans. “I don’t want to dilute that conversation with changing the form of government,” the mayor said.
During the discussion, Williamston Police Chief Tony Taylor asked if there was a change who would he answer to and “Would it be the mayor or to five councilmembers.”
Councilman Scott said he would answer to all five.
Councilman Burgess began to explain that the council could appoint the mayor or a councilmember to be over each department to which the mayor responded, “If you don’t want the responsibility, don’t change it.”
The councilman has stated several times that if the change is made, the first thing he will do is put the mayor in charge, but the change in government is the only way to hold the mayor accountable.
Burgess again stated that the only accountability for the mayor under the current system is every four years when an election is held. “There is nothing I can do unless we change the form of government,” he said.
During the discussion, Pastor Darrin Johnson spoke, saying there was a “lack of communication” and that efforts should be made to bring the community together. “We as a community have to work together to server the betterment of the community.”
Prior to the discussion on the issue, Williamston businessman Jim Simpson, who also serves on several town related boards, spoke in favor of leaving the current strong mayor form of government in place.
Gatewood resident Matt Johnson spoke in favor of the change, stating the he had extreme concerns about the mayor’s actions regarding the wellbeing and safety of Gatewood residents and his lack of response and communication on the issue.
Several councilmembers expressed concern that holding second reading in two weeks may not allow time to inform the public on the issue.
Once second reading is held and approved, the town has 60 to 90 days to hold the election referendum. The issue could be on the ballot as early as June.
The vote on holding a special meeting for second reading was shot down with a 3-2 vote. This time councilman Harvell sided with Hagood and the mayor to not hold second reading so quickly.
Acting on a motion by the mayor, council then voted unanimously to hold second reading on the issue at the regular meeting of council on April 6.