A more powerful mayor in Mount Pleasant?

Mayor Billy Swails

MOUNT PLEASANT -- The town should have a full-time mayor with power like mayors in Charleston and North Charleston, Mayor Billy Swails said. The mayor will ask Town Council to approve a referendum on the issue.

"I don't want anybody to think it is a power grab for me. It is working myself out of a job. I just think now is the time to ask the people," he said.

Swails, who is in the third year of a four-year term as a part-time mayor, said he does not want to serve a second term as a full-time mayor. He has a State Farm insurance agency, and the company would prohibit it, he said.

"I don't want to quit my day job," he said.

At 8:30 a.m. Monday, the council's Police, Judicial & Legal Committee, of which Swails is chairman, will consider the issue.

Currently, Mount Pleasant has a "weak mayor/strong council" form of government. Swails said he is seeking council authorization for a November general election referendum on whether to switch to a "strong mayor/weak council."

The town is running fine now, he said, but a strong mayor has more power to get things done. In contrast, a weak mayor needs at least four more council votes to implement his or her plans, Swails said.

If the committee approves a referendum, a council vote on the issue will be required before it could happen. The next council meeting is Feb. 14.

A strong mayor has powers that include presiding over the council; appointment and removal of employees; and supervision of departments.

He or she prepares and submits a budget and capital improvements program; makes an annual financial report to the public and council; and reports to the council on department operations, according to the Municipal Association of South Carolina.

Salaries are much higher for full-time mayors. Charleston Mayor Joe Riley earns $162,816. North Charleston Mayor Keith Summey is paid $148,905.

Under the current weak mayor system, Swails presides over meetings, performs ceremonial duties and calls special meetings but has no significant power under law beyond that of other council members.

Councilmen Elton Carrier and Chris Nickels, who are members of the Police, Judicial & Legal Committee, said they oppose changing to a strong mayor government.

"I don't see a compelling reason to do it. I like the way we are organized now," Carrier said.

A strong mayor would take over key powers now wielded by the administrator. A mayor in such a position could limit the issues before the council, Carrier said.

"The mayor could cut things off, and they would never get to council," he said.

Carrier said he would support a pay raise for the mayor, who is budgeted to receive $24,000 annually. Swails does not accept a salary, choosing instead to give the money back to the town.

Nickels said he opposes a strong mayor government because it would have a "chilling effect" on the council.

"I think this is the single biggest issue facing the town in a long time," he said.

Nickels expressed concern that a strong mayor would be more susceptible to influence from developers than the council as a whole. Patronage is a concern, he said, because of a strong mayor's power to hire and fire staff and possibly reward friends and punish enemies.

Nickels likened the town's current weak mayor/strong council government to a board of directors that makes policy carried out by the professionals on town staff. No evidence has been presented to support a need to change governments, he said.

The fourth member of the Police, Judicial & Legal Committee is Mayor Pro Tem Thomasena Stokes-Marshall, who could not be reached for comment Friday.

Resident George Freeman said he opposes changing to a strong mayor system because it gives too much power to one person.

"I really don't like it. I like what we have right now," he said.

Another resident, William Hamilton, expressed some support for the strong mayor form of government if it would help critical issues such as economic development.

"It is long past time for the town of Mount Pleasant to decide if it wants to be the city of Mount Pleasant or not," he said.

In July, Summerville Town Council granted newly elected Mayor Bill Collins "temporary authority" to act as town administrator, which in effect made him a strong mayor.

At the same time, the council halted its search for a new administrator, a $100,000-plus salary position. Collins took over the job at his mayor's salary of $15,000.

South Carolina has three kinds of municipal governments -- mayor-council, council and council-manager. Some 157 of the 270 municipalities have the mayor-council form of government, also known as the strong mayor system. And 81 municipalities have the council style of government, which is a weak mayor system.

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