By David Meade
Williamston voters will have the opportunity to go to the polls on Tuesday, June 9 to show the mayor and council if they want the town’s form of government to be changed. After considerable discussion during their meeting Monday, Williamston Town Council voted 3-2 to move forward with a referendum to allow residents to decide if they want to change the Form of Government the town operates under.
The town currently operates under a strong mayor form of government. Three of the town’s four councilmembers would like to see that changed to a strong council form of government. Councilmembers Rockey Burgess, David Harvell and Otis Scott voted in favor of a motion made by Councilman Scott to proceed with the referendum. Councilman Tony Hagood and Mayor Mack Durham were opposed.
During public comments two people spoke on the issue.
Pastor Kempie Shepard stated that she liked the town’s government “as it is”. “If you want something done, go to the mayor,” she said. “When it is all considered, the constituents are the most important thing. What I see is a need for control and to be in charge. This should not be about what is best for me, but what is best for the people in the town of Williamston.”
Business owner Jim Simpson spoke about the positive things happening in Williamston and said there is no urgency to rush a vote on the issue.
Simpson said if the council wants to seek the will of the people, the issue should be voted on when the most people are likely to turn out, during a general election cycle.
“Why not give them the opportunity for the majority to make a decision. A special vote is extreme and not fair.”
The three councilmembers in favor of the change have all stated that they feel the mayor is making decisions without their input and not keeping them informed on projects and issues the town is facing.
The issue first came up last August after the mayor approved work on a sidewalk improvement project in Mineral Spring Park without informing council and without approved funding.
Following promises by the mayor that he would work better with council and keep them better informed, the issue was dropped.
But a similar situation arose in January with the West Main Street Enhancement project.
Councilmembers said they were not informed about the project, or any changes that had been made since it was approved in 2011.
Mayor Durham said that it was a SCDOT project and that he had only made a suggestion which SCDOT engineers incorporated into the revised project plan.
The changes resulted in considerable negative feedback from the community and local fire and EMS officials about traffic flow problems which created a safety issue.
That led to Councilman Scott bringing up the issue again in February. First reading on an ordinance to change the form of government was held at the March 2 council meeting.
The second reading vote which will allow the issue to go to referendum was held Monday.
When council addressed the agenda item, Councilman Scott immediately made a motion to pass second reading on the referendum ordinance and to hold it on the second Tuesday of June.
Councilman Burgess stated he would like for council to pass a resolution stating exactly what the intentions of council are if the referendum results in a change in the form of government.
Burgess said there needs to be a clear understanding that there will not be five council members telling town employees what to do.
“There can only be one person in charge, and only one,” he said. “The mayor does need to be accountable to the people. He is only accountable every four years.”
Burgess said he sees council delegating authority to the mayor, who will be accountable to council.
Burgess also stated that under the strong council form of government he and the others are proposing, there would be more continuity even if there is a change in who is mayor.
“It is very difficult to have a complete upset,” he said giving the example of the comprehensive plan the town is currently working on. “In 2016 we could have a new mayor with a new plan and the old plan is scrapped,” Burgess said. “We have had good plans that are not put into action. A new mayor comes in with a different vision and previously approved plans are shelved.”
Burgess stressed that the strong council form of government will provide accountability and stability to the town.
“My suggestion is to give authority to the mayor with the understanding that the mayor is accountable to council. If it is not working, council can replace him.”
Burgess said the issue is not about a power grab, but is about holding the mayor accountable.
Mayor Durham responded that the issue, “Kinda feels like a power grab. We are doing a great job.”
He acknowledged there has been a communication problem which he said he is addressing with weekly meetings with members of council and by filtering information through mayor pro tem David Harvell, who then passes it on to the other council members.
Durham said, “The problems are not our form of government. If we don’t have good communications, neither form will work.”
Mayor Durham said he wanted to continue under the current form of government and read a list of projects, initiatives and achievements that have come about since he was elected to serve under the strong mayor form of government.
“My vote is to continue under the current form of government, with the mayor having full responsibility and authority.”
Councilman Scott agreed that communication has been better since the issue came back up, however he stated that he has concerns that the mayor will “go right back just like before”, as he did after the issue was dropped last September.
“I want to bring it before council to let them decide and then for the public to decide,” Scott said.
Durham expressed concerns about a small turnout for a special election, stating that it would be “a disservice to our community.”
The mayor said he is not against allowing the public to vote on the issue or listening to the people. but said to get fair representation the issue needs to be addressed in a general election.
Burgess said he would prefer the issue to be voted on in a general election. He said he wants to let people decide the form of government sooner so the town can focus on upcoming initiatives.
The town is beginning the 2015-16 budget process, in the process of hiring a new Main Street Director, starting a trails project and beginning work on a comprehensive plan among other initiatives.
Councilman Tony Hagood said the communication problem seems to have improved and commented on Councilman Scott’s concern that the mayor and council communication will go back to being a problem. “It is our job to better that communication and to move the town forward. We run the risk of stagnating that progress,” Hagood said.
Hagood said that changing the town’s form of government because of the past communication problems “does not warrant the direction we will go in.”