Summerville Mayor Wiley Johnson says he won’t seek a second term this year, and that has all of Flowertown talking.
But anyone who’s actually surprised by this news hasn’t been paying attention.
While three other candidates have been campaigning for his job, the mayor had remained mum about his plans. And he wasn’t raising money either … even though the election is just four months away.
Those were two pretty big clues. Honestly, though, the signs that Johnson would be one-and-done have been piling up for more than three years.
In 2015, Johnson defeated incumbent Mayor Bill Collins — an upset that had a lot to do with controversy over downtown development. But during the campaign, Johnson also criticized Town Council for giving Collins additional administrative powers after the departure of a town manager.
He vowed to change that.
Council members beat him to the punch, however, stripping the mayor’s office of that enlarged authority before Johnson was even sworn in. They said the arrangement with Collins was always meant to be temporary and they were only doing what Johnson had promised to do during the campaign anyway. Yes, they were suggesting the mayor was a tad hypocritical.
The mayor’s allies conversely called it a sinister ploy to limit Johnson’s power. Which ultimately led to a 2016 referendum to determine the town’s form of government.
Summerville operates on a council form of government and, beyond ceremonial duties, the mayor doesn’t have much more statutory pull than a member of council. The referendum would have changed that to give the mayor broad executive powers — basically the same setup as North Charleston and Charleston. More than 57 percent of Summerville voters opposed the idea.
Between the proposal’s defeat and Johnson’s ongoing feud with council — last year they even censured him for “overstepping his authority” — the mayor was pretty much done.
Johnson told The Post and Courier that he’d questioned whether he should run again as soon as council changed the mayor’s duties. Which means, about the time he took office. No surprise there.
This has been Summerville’s most-watched soap opera for nearly four years. The mayor has fought with council since Day One — over agendas, budgets, who can tell employees what to do and even the color of police cars.
Some of the problem has stemmed from a lack of communication and honest differences of opinion, but much of it has been the result of extreme personality clashes. Few people around town are neutral on Johnson — they either love him or hate him.
For most of his tenure, Johnson has found himself on the losing end of 5-2 votes, with Councilwoman Christine Czarnik often his only support. In 2017, the mayor’s friend and adviser Peter Gorman — another divisive figure around town — tried to give him some help by running a candidate against Councilwoman Kima Garten-Schmidt.
When the campaign failed, that was pretty much it for the mayor. As he told Post and Courier reporter Conner Mitchell, if council had changed, he might’ve run again.
Johnson says he could’ve won re-election, which is debatable. The failure to win the referendum — also promoted by Gorman — or elect like-minded council candidates made the mayor’s re-election prospects less than certain.
But anything can happen in municipal elections, which routinely have abysmal voter turnout. So who knows?
Johnson is absolutely right about one thing: The question of mayoral authority isn’t going away. Summerville is the seventh-largest city in the state and, like Mount Pleasant (No. 4), it still operates with a government more often adopted by small towns. Folks in both of these “towns” will one day have to determine if this is the best model for the future.
But such lofty debates shouldn’t be driven by the popularity or unpopularity of a single politician.
Johnson says that with a new mayor, perhaps things will change. But his decision to step away may put an end to the bad blood that has divided the town, and that’s good. Summerville is much too nice a place for such rancor.
So this is a soap opera that needed to be canceled, as anyone who’s been paying attention could tell you.
Reach Brian Hicks at firstname.lastname@example.org.