Give Summerville voters their say

Young and old, longtime residents, newcomers and visitors came out for the opening day of the 2013 annual Flowertown Festival. (Brad Nettles/ 4/5/13

It has been more than eight months since Summerville voters ousted Bill Collins as mayor and elected Wiley Johnson. And the town’s form of government is still a point of contention.

If a recently submitted petition passes muster and voters are given the opportunity to put their differences to rest in November, perhaps Summerville can recapture the neighborly spirit that the town known for sweet tea and abundant azaleas has enjoyed for generations.

That would be a welcome development. Sadly, residents are hotly divided on whether the mayor of Summerville should have more governing power than council members — a decision which could play a significant role in the town’s plans to build a large condominium/hotel/conference center in downtown Summerville.

Those controversial plans were challenged in a lawsuit by the Summerville Preservation Society and others who claim the town violated federal, state and local laws when it struck its deal with developer Applegate & Co.

Circuit Judge Edgar Dickson heard arguments in the case earlier this year, but he has not ruled.

During the campaign for mayor, Mr. Collins maintained that a “vision plan” for the town, which supported the downtown development, would bolster that area. Others contended that it would irreparably alter its small-town, historic feel.

One way Mr. Collins was able to push those plans along was because council gave him increased executive, fiscal and appointing authority early in his term.

In February, soon after Mr. Wiley took over, a divided council stripped away those additional mayoral powers.

Voters certainly deserve to have a say in this thorny situation, but they would be wise to consider the referendum as a way to shape governance, not a personality contest. It is unlikely that another mayor will serve Summerville as long as Berlin G. Myers did — 39 years. So what is important is deciding what form of government would best serve the fast-growing town — for both longtime residents and newcomers, regardless of who is the mayor.

It’s a question that clearly needs to be addressed. Of the town’s 50,000 residents, 6,028 signed a petition in favor of having a referendum on the ballot in November. That is more than the 4,700 people who voted last November.

Positively Summerville, a group calling for no change in the government, has almost 4,500 members on Facebook.

Both those who support the change in governance and those who oppose it say they have been treated rudely by residents who disagree with them.

It’s not the Summerville of warm welcomes that it once was. Give town voters a chance to choose their form of governance so they can clear the air and get back together over a pitcher of sweet tea.