MOUNT PLEASANT — Mayor Will Haynie's closest ally in the town's government is proposing a seismic shift in the balance of power: a change to a "strong mayor" that voters could consider this November.
“If we have a couple (of Town Council members) who say this is a power grab by Mayor Haynie, then it will become contentious, but that’s not what it is," said Councilman Joe Bustos, who is proposing a voter referendum.
“My intention is to have the referendum say it would take effect after the next mayor election," he said.
A strong mayor has a full-time job, a six-figure salary and sweeping authority to hire and fire. A weak mayor, as Mount Pleasant currently has, is essentially a member of Town Council with extra duties and the power to appoint people to committees.
Scott Slatton, legislative and public policy advocate for the Municipal Association of South Carolina, said a referendum could specify when a change in government would begin. Otherwise, he said, it could happen following voter approval because “there’s no guidance in state law to say when it would take effect."
Bustos' proposal comes at a time when Mount Pleasant Town Council has been acrimonious, with one-time allies openly quarreling as the November election approaches.
The last time Mount Pleasant seriously considered asking voters to consider changing the form of government was when Mayor Billy Swails proposed doing so in 2012. Swails was quickly rebuffed by council members and dropped the effort.
Columbia held a referendum to consider switching to a strong-mayor government in 2013 but voters rejected it decisively. In 2016, a strong-mayor referendum in Summerville was also rejected, with nearly 60 percent of voters casting ballots against the change.
Slatton said most referendums in recent years have been aimed at changing local governments in the opposite direction.
“Most were to go from a strong mayor to a council form because there was dissatisfaction with the mayor at the time," he said.
Bustos, who is Haynie's closest ally on Town Council, said he thinks the town needs a strong mayor.
“We have a mayor who sits at the table with the mayors of Charleston and North Charleston, and they can commit to things and he can’t without going back to council," he said. “We’ve seen how, without a central figure who is a strong mayor, two or three people (on Town Council) can just be completely disruptive."
However, Bustos admits that being pleased with a strong mayor depends on who the mayor would be.
"When you have a mayor-council form of government, you have to be very careful who you elect," he said. "I think it would have been very bad if (prior Mayor) Linda Page had been a strong mayor."
Page said on Monday she wouldn't have wanted to be a strong mayor but has long believed the town should have one. She said being mayor under the current system is demanding but treated as a part-time job, and "it would be hard for most people who aren't self-employed, or wealthy, to consider it."
Page said if the town does switch to a strong mayor government it would likely need to switch to electing Town Council members by district, rather than electing all of them in town-wide elections.
North Charleston and Charleston both have strong mayors and single-member council districts where the council members are elected only by residents of the districts they represent.
A petition drive to put single-member council district referendum on the 2017 ballot in Mount Pleasant failed when only 8,337 of the required 9,195 signatures were ruled to be valid.
Bustos' proposed referendum is scheduled for discussion at the Tuesday's Town Council meeting. The meeting begins at 6 p.m. at Town Hall, 100 Ann Edwards Lane.