By Stan Welch
The Williamston Town Council, under the guidance of Mayor pro tem Chris Alexander, addressed several issues at their monthly work session held Jan 26. Chief among them was the engaging of a firm, CCI, to handle permitting issues for the town. Mayor Rockey Burgess, who was present, had planned to attend a school board meeting earlier, and had arranged for Alexander to handle the meeting.
Still it was Burgess who explained the change, since it was he who explored the possibility. Under the strong mayor form of government, Burgess is authorized to execute the contract unilaterally. But a consistent theme of the meeting was Burgess’s desire to have council members “just as involved as they want to be.” In keeping with that idea, each council member has been asked to oversee a specific aspect of the town’s operations. Alexander is involved in Administrative matter; Councilman Tony Hagood is working on infrastructure; and new council member Tabatha Austin is involved with recreational matters.
Burgess is also seeking to streamline certain functions. Currently, a contractor seeking to build in town limits has to ping pong back and forth between the county, which currently handles the permitting process for the town, and town offices. CCI would become the independent party that removes the need for that. The town would simply adopt the county fee structure and add five per cent. The fees would pay the company fifty dollars an hour for services as provided, making the arrangement revenue neutral. The additional five per cent would go into a special account to be used for permits and nuisance abatement.
Burgess presented the contract as a fait accompli, but asked that the Council approve the arrangement by adopting a resolution at next week’s council meeting.
Before the next issue was addressed, a discussion between The Journal reporter and Mayor Burgess and town attorney Lee Cole ensued. The Mayor and attorney wanted to hold an executive session to handle a delicate matter involving both legal advice and a contractual matter: both legitimate reasons for an executive session. The issue raised by The Journal was that the meeting was a work session, and that the council was not convened and able to take action. Since going into executive session requires both a motion and a vote – both legislative actions – The Journal questioned the authority to convene an executive session. Attorney Cole argued that the meeting had been properly advertised, which equated to being in session. The Journal pointed out that the meeting was advertised as a work session, which by definition, prohibits taking any action, i.e. votes. (Editor’s note: advertising in this context refers simply to the public notification required by the SCFOIA)
Following a brief, civil discussion of the issue, the mayor and town attorney conferred even more briefly in the hall. They then decided, that erring on the side of compliance and transparency, to discuss the matter in general terms, with the mayor reserving the absolutely legal option of discussing the matter in more depth with each councilmember individually at a later time.
The issue is indeed somewhat delicate and complex. A company, currently identified As X Inc., is exploring an economic development opportunity in the town. There are three small pieces of property that would be involved if that opportunity is pursued. According to Cole, the town may or may not have an interest in those parcels. An independent title search produced uncertainty over that question. The ordinance in question would not settle the matter, but would preempt it by selling the parcels for one dollar, if and when the town’s interest is established in the future.
Mayor Burgess stated that the uncertainty about the town’s position, in addition to the significant benefits to the town if the development goes forward, makes the decision viable.
Burgess also explained that Williamston, West Pelzer and Pelzer are working together to provide SCDHEC with a location and an opportunity to operate a COVID vaccination operation for the towns’ citizens. Further details will be revealed as they become available.
By Stan Welch