Whether to change Summerville’s government ’tis the question

This shouldn't be about Mayor Wiley Johnson, but that's how some people will see it.

You wouldn’t think many people care about Summerville town government, much less the extent of the mayor’s power.

You know, seeing as how barely 15 percent of voters bothered to turn out for the last mayoral election.

But we may soon find out different.

A group of residents has collected more than 6,000 names on a petition to change the town’s government from a council form to a strong mayor. If at least 4,345 of those signatures come from actual registered voters in Summerville, the question will go on the ballot.

And then the fun begins.

Flowertown has been rabid ever since Wiley Johnson defeated Mayor Bill Collins in the 2015 mayoral election. Council had made Collins de facto town administrator years earlier but quickly reduced the job’s power after Johnson was elected.

Since then, the Concerned Citizens of Dorchester County group has taken to Facebook largely in support of Johnson, while the competing Positively Summerville page opened as an alternative to the Concerned Citizens.

It is the partisan divide in Summerville.

But this isn’t a complicated, or partisan, issue. It’s simply about how much power the Summerville mayor actually has: Should he run the town, hire and fire people, or just cut ribbons and serve as councilman at-large?

Either way, the real measure of Johnson’s power will be this referendum — even if his name isn’t on it.

And even if he shouldn’t be the issue.

Johnson has remained silent on this; he didn’t even sign the petition. Smart.

But the drive was led by his friend and adviser Peter Gorman, not-so-affectionately known on the Positively Summerville page as a recent transplant, outside agitator and “snake.”

Ouch.

That group believes this petition is hypocritical since Johnson and Gorman made Collins’ outsized power an issue in the mayoral race. Johnson will tell you the issue was that Collins’ power was given to him by council, not the people. Fair point.

His detractors, however, think it’s just a power grab since Johnson criticized one mayor for having too much authority, then his allies turn around and try to increase his. That’s a fair point, too.

The real question, however, should be what’s best for Summerville — regardless of warring personalities.

Many people consider Summerville a small town, a bedroom community for Charleston. It certainly has that inviting small-town feel, even if it is now the seventh-largest city in South Carolina.

For some, hanging on to a council government is a way to keep that big-city feel at bay. But it’s not an unfair question for a “town” of its size, so let majority rule here.

As long as more than 15 percent of voters voice an opinion.

If this petition gets on the ballot and passes, the consternation continues.

Then it becomes a question of how quickly the change occurs. An old attorney general’s opinion suggests it shouldn’t happen until the following mayoral election.

But don’t expect that to fly without a lawsuit. Especially since subsequent AG opinions have said such changes could occur immediately.

Council can, and should, sort all that out before the vote. And they probably will, because most of them realize — agree or not — this is serious.

Mount Pleasant, a “town” in a similar boat, has wrestled with this question for years. There are pros and cons to both sides, and Summerville needs to decide whether it’s more a Mount Pleasant or a Charleston — the biggest strong-mayor city in the state.

This should not be a referendum on Johnson, but it probably will be seeing as how little ol’ concerned Flowertown has become so positively politicized these days.

Some people will tell you Summerville operated just fine for decades under a weak-mayor form of government led by Berlin G. Myers.

But those days, like Myers, are gone with the wind.

Reach Brian Hicks at bhicks@postandcourier.com.