By David Meade
Williamston voters will have the opportunity to go to the polls next Tuesday, June 9 to decide whether the Town of Williamston should operate under a different form of government.
Williamston currently operates under the strong mayor form of government in which the mayor makes executive decisions in day to day operations of the town and hiring.
Three of the town’s four councilmembers would like to see that changed to a strong council form of government. Councilmembers Otis Scott, David Harvell and Rockey Burgess have all said they would like to see the town go to the council-mayor form of government, giving council more authority in the day to day operations of the town.
All three supported having a referendum to decide the issue. Councilman Tony Hagood and Mayor Mack Durham have been opposed.
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, eventually leading to removal of two of the newly installed bulb-outs.
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.
Council also unanimously approved a resolution drafted by Councilman Rockey Burgess stating intentions of council if the change of government referendum passes.
The resolution states three things:
Individual councilmen shall not be involved in the day to day administrative functions of the town; Council shall grant authority to the mayor to carry out the day to day administrative functions and Individual councilmen shall not give direct instruction or directives to town employees.
The resolution, which holds no legal bite, was passed with a 3-2 vote. Councilman Hagood and Mayor Durham opposed.
Burgess has stated that there will not be five council members telling town employees what to do and that he sees council delegating authority back 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 in town plans even if there is a change in who is mayor.
Burgess had stated that the strong council form of government will provide accountability and stability to the town.
Mayor Durham has acknowledged there has been a communication problem which he said he was 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.
During a council worksession, Jeff Shaker of the SC Municipal Association said that in most cases he has seen either form of government works best when council members and the mayor recognize that governing is a team sport.
Shaker said the strong mayor form of government works best when the mayor involves council on the front end. He said under the council form, the mayor often takes a more vocal role to get things done and both work best when there is an effort to “soften the edges” of responsibility.
Shaker stressed that in either form of government, communication is important.
There have been concerns expressed by both sides about a small turnout for a special election and a preference for the issue to be voted on in a general election, however the push to hold the referendum as soon as possible resulted in the referendum being June 9.
If the issue passes, the strong council form of government will be in effect for four years.
“I want the citizens to know I support the change in government but I am not telling them which way to vote, just to pray and let their heart lead them in the right direction as to which way they want their town to go,”Councilman Scott said. “Whether forward with one man making the decisions by himself or with council having the say in what decisions are made, especially when it comes to the citizens money that is being spent.”
Scott encouraged citizens to come out and vote one way or the other.
Mayor Durham said, “There is no reason for this. It is not a referendum called by the voice of the people. It was called by three members of council for no other reason than political aspirations.”