By David Meade
During their first meeting of the new year and under the leadership of a new mayor, the Town of Williamston set an election date, postponed a decision on what to do about the administrator position until after that election, and turned down a zoning change request.
Williamston Town Council set an election date of April 2 to fill the vacant Ward 2 seat on council and postponed any decision on what to do about the town administrator position until a full council is seated and can make the decision.
The vote on what to do about the position came at the end of a four hour meeting which included an executive session that lasted for about an hour and a half.
Upon returning to open session, Council unanimously approved a motion made by Councilman Otis Scott to postpone the issue until a full council is elected and to leave it up to the mayor to decide if the administrator is left on suspension or not.
Following the meeting, Mayor Mack Durham said Administrator Phyllis Lollis will remain on suspension, with pay, until a decision is made by the full council.
At the beginning of the council meeting, which was moved to the Municipal Center Auditorium due to a large crowd, the Mayor, councilmembers David Harvell and Otis Scott and other town officials were publicly administered their oath of office.
More than 250 people watched as Tony Taylor was also sworn in as the town’s new police chief, making history in the process.
Taylor is the first black to hold the Chief of Police position of a municipality in Anderson County. (See separate story)
Also sworn in were Williamston Police Department Command Staff members Captain Jay Grubbs and Captain Kevin Marsee.
Williamston Fire Chief Steve Ellison was also sworn in along with newly elected officers for the Fire Department.
Four people spoke during the public comments portion of the meeting.
Rocky Burgess said he supports the mayor but he had a problem with the way he handled the firing of employees and suspension of the administrator on Jan. 2. Burgess said Durham had violated a firing freeze that was in place until Jan. 7 and circumvented council by not informing them, creating unnessary conflict for the town.
He also said he had a problem with the new mayor blaming the financial condition of the town for some of the firings. “I know the financial condition of the town,” he said. “We are not in a financial crisis.”
Burgess said he planned to fill an empty seat on council, “Not for the money, but to make our town a better place.”
William Curly Leach, a candidate for mayor who dropped out of the race, spoke saying that the controversey and power struggles of the town were overshadowed by the history. He mentioned the president and chief of police and the progress the country has made. He said he supported the mayor and his effort to “clean up town hall” and offered a broom to help him “sweep it out.”
“I support him to get this town back to a great town,” Leach said.
Phillip Clardy, who also ran for mayor, said that when he was in office he also had to make decisions that were controversial. “We were not elected to make people happy,” he said. Clardy said that he had seen people terminated, his brother being one of them. “You reap what you sow.”
Clardy said the people elected him (Durham) and should trust him. “You may find that they were the right decisions,” he said.
Clardy said he was against the hiring of the current administrator when he was in office, not as a person, but because of qualifications. Clardy urged the crowd to trust them and “pray for them and let God work it out in his own time.”
Former Councilman Mike Looper said the town had been overbudget for several years and that Durham had said the town would have to eliminate some jobs if they kept the administrator. “I admire him. He stood up on the first day and did it.”
Before taking up old business on the agenda, Councilman Scott pointed out that the council needed to elect a mayor pro tem.
The new mayor stated that items could not be added to the agenda, leading to a discussion.
Town attorney Richard Thompson advised that items of “substantive public interest” could not be added to the agenda, but said it would be appropriate to amend the agenda for the issue. The attorney said that state law does require that a mayor pro tem be elected at the first meeting of council.
The motion to amend the agenda to elect a mayor pro tem received a second by Councilman David Harvell but was defeated by a 3-1 vote after the mayor said he would consider a delay due to a vacant seat on council. Scott was the only one to vote in favor.
In other business, Council unanimously decided to leave four lots on Williams St. zoned residential based on a recommendation by the planning commission.
A request was made to the town to change the zoning from residential to highway commercial.
Speaking for the planning commission, Marion Middleton Jr. said that though there was commercial zoning on property on the north side of Williams St., the commission recommended leaving it as it is.
Pamela Owens asked the town to look at the ordinance regarding buring and how it affects fire pits. Durham said he will appoint a committee with councilmen David Harvell and Tony Hagood to meet with the fire chief and to report back by the next meeting of council.
Council unanimously approved the election date of Apr. 2 to fill the vacant Ward 2 seat. The seat became open when Durham took over as mayor.
The Town Attorney was asked to explain the power of office of the mayor as it applies to the mayor-council form of government the town has.
Williamston has a strong mayor form of government, which Thompson said gives the mayor the dual role of chief administrator and the responsibility to act as a member of council.
As part of the duties, a mayor can appoint, suspend or remove all municipal employees except personnel ruled by council, he said.
The duties are defined in the SC code of laws and the SC municipal association section 5-9-30.
ACOG on Town Finances
Doug Burns of the Appalachian Council of Governments spoke on the financial condition of the town.
Burns mentioned his predecessor at ACOG, Joe Newton, who advised the town through financial difficulties when former mayor Phillip Clardy was in office in 2006.
At that time he said “the entire town was about to go under” and Newton made “very severe recommendations for the town to stay afloat.”
“The town is not in that situation here today,” he said.
Burns clearly stated that it was not his intention “to imply you are about to go broke” adding that there are “some practices, that if they continue, could require actions, to stay afloat.”
Burns said that Williamston and other municipalities are dealing with revenue shortages due in part to the 2008 recession and that towns are looking at how to maintain services and not raise taxes.
Burns pionted out that revenues are projected to go down while other expenses are going up.
Burns recommended the town look at budget changes and how things are appropriated.
He also said there has been a “tendency to rely on reserves to balance the budget or cover excess expenditures for one time capital purchases.”
He said the reserve fund balance is to be used if there is a catastrophe and to make sure you have money to operate if there is a cash shortfall, to avoid having to borrow to pay bills.
He pointed out that the fund balance had decreased from $1.46 to $1.23 million which he said “is a substantial decrease from where you were.”
“You cannot keep using the fund balance as you have in the past,” he said. He urged the town to “get a grip on recurring costs.”
“You have tapped into the fund for some recurring costs. Council should work together to understand the budget,” he said.
He also recommended the town not split funding for some expenses among funds.
The town currently has several expenses including salaries and legal fees which are divided among the general fund and the water and sewer funds
He said the town should set down concrete policies and procedures on how the budget is changed or altered and designate
who has the authority to move money from line items.
Harvell questions ACOG
Councilman David Harvell had several questions regarding the town finances including whether Burns was saying the audit is incorrect and if the town is in a financial crisis or failing financially.
He also asked the ACOG representative what the recommended percentage is for a general fund balance.
Burns responded that the recommended fund balance amount is three months of operating expenses.
The town currently has approximately a $4 million yearly budget and has $2.1 million, or about six months, in the reserve fund.
Harvell said he had several recommendations to make “if the town is truly in a financial crisis,” but the discussion was ended at that point.
In a follow up interview Tuesday, Councilman Otis Scott said that he still thought the council should have filled the position of mayor pro tem, which he said is required by state law to be filled at the first meeting of council.
“If something should happen to the mayor the town would be without a second in command,” he said.
Scott said he would like to see the position of administrator be changed to a part-time position and that having someone in the position had helped “get the town in a pretty good financial shape.”
He said the first meeting of the year “went pretty good” other than the issue with the administrator and electing mayor pro tem.