Sville seeks to rein in huge crowds at meetings

Wiley Johnson

SUMMERVILLE — For months, town residents have turned out in droves for council meetings to speak up and listen as council grapples with the outcome of last fall’s hotly contested election.

Now those standing-room-only crowds, which often spill out into the hallway, have become the issue.

The town Finance Committee, which includes the entire council, is set to talk about “public safety concerns relating to occupancy of council chambers” during its meeting at 6:30 p.m. Wednesday. Fire Chief Richard Waring said Tuesday the Fire Department will enforce the 190-person limit in the future.

Mayor Wiley Johnson, who has had a difficult time garnering support from council members since his election in November, said the issue “seems to be a little bit of a knee-jerk reaction to try to keep the public away from meetings.”

Waring said that’s not the case at all.

“With the crowds that we’ve had at the last few council meetings, it’s raised concerns,” he said. “We love to see that participation, but at the same time, we can’t do it at the expense of putting our citizens in harm’s way.”

Maximum occupancy of council chambers is 190, but Johnson said overflow crowds will now be directed to watch live-streamed meetings in the Town Hall training room, which has 40 additional seats and standing room for another 20 people. The meeting videos are not available online.

In recent months, as the new Town Council has tackled two main development issues — a planned hotel and retail complex downtown and Bear Island Extension, a connector road through Weatherstone neighborhood — its meetings on the second Wednesday of each month have become can’t-miss events.

“Big city politics have come to our town,” said Councilman Bill McIntosh. “Motives are being questioned, names are being called, and that’s not the Summerville way of doing things.”

Public comments often last more than an hour, with residents’ comments often punctuated by cheers or jeers from the audience.

“It doesn’t accomplish anything,” said Councilman Walter Bailey. “It’s just people venting. ... It’s a very unfortunate trend.”

Bailey said he would consider introducing a Rules of Decorum ordinance similar to the city of Charleston’s if people continue to “show up and not be on their best behavior.” Charleston’s rule bans profane, abusive or obscene language and “fighting words” from anyone who speaks at council meetings.

Johnson, who has said he won’t limit the comment period, said he is also considering adding public comments at Finance Committee meetings, which are held a week before regular council meetings.

“The Finance Committee meeting is getting to be the meeting because we make decisions and the whole council is there,” he said.

Since Johnson’s election, the tension at council and committee meetings has been palpable. Council members at times talk over each other and many proposals pass by a single vote.

“We are a split council,” said Aaron Brown, the longest-serving council member. “I think that is not a good prospect for the future of the town.”

Brown typically sides with the new regime, which includes Johnson and newly elected Councilwoman Christine Czarnik, while council members McIntosh, Bailey, Jackson and Kima Garten-Schmidt often vote together.