MOUNT PLEASANT — An attempt to move the town toward a strong-mayor form of government, in a potential November referendum, has instead reopened questions about how Town Council members are elected.
Some residents and council members said, at Tuesday night's council meeting, that it wouldn't be fair for the council to put a referendum on the ballot to change the powers of the mayor, when the council two years ago refused to approve a ballot referendum on single-member council districts.
More than 8,300 town voters had signed petitions calling for a 2017 referendum on whether to continue to elect council members regardless of where in town they live, or to switch to dividing the town up into council districts, as in Charleston and North Charleston.
“I am not going to discuss anything about the mayor’s powers until we discuss ... how we are elected," said Councilman Bob Brimmer. “I think looking at the strong-mayor/weak-mayor before looking at how council is elected is backwards.”
Councilman Joe Bustos proposed to have a voter referendum on switching to a strong mayor. He said that if such a referendum were held, and approved, then it would only take effect after Mayor Will Haynie's current term that runs through 2021.
A strong mayor is a town or city's top executive, with sweeping authority to hire and fire. It's a full-time job that carries a six-figure salary in Charleston and North Charleston, which are two of only three cities in the state with 25,000 or more residents that have a strong-mayor government.
A council form of government, also known as a weak mayor, is what as Mount Pleasant currently has. That means the mayor is essentially a member of council with extra duties, and extra pay, and the power to appoint people to committees.
Aside from Bustos, who is Haynie's closest ally, council members were cool to the referendum idea. Several suggested discussing it in a future committee meeting, and that's what they eventually agreed to do.
Two years ago, Town Council refused to put a referendum on the ballot asking if residents wanted to elect council members from specific parts of the town, by creating single-member council districts.
A petition drive could have put the single-member question on the 2017 ballot without council's approval, but it failed when only 8,337 of the required 9,195 signatures were ruled to be valid.
“Now, Haynie and Bustos have been told by their activist boss to put a referendum on the ballot about a strong mayor," said town resident Reece Artigues.
The Save Shem Creek Corp., in a Facebook post Monday, said that having a strong mayor "means that individual staff members who make decisions that run counter to Town code could be held accountable ... rather than what we've seen the last few years with projects like the Shem Creek parking garage, etc."
Members of the same group strongly opposed the idea of council agreeing to put a single-member-district referendum on the ballot two years ago.
“You’re putting the interests of a small group above the interests of the majority of residents of this town,” Save Shem Creek officer James Scott told council at the 2017 meeting where the single-district referendum was being considered. “How reckless can you be?”
Several staunch Haynie supporters spoke in favor of the strong-mayor idea Tuesday, including town Zoning Board of Appeals member Barry Wolff and Medal of Honor recipient James Livingston, who has worked closely with Haynie on plans for a Medal of Honor Museum.
“Time and time again, I’ve seen (Haynie) try to keep this body out of the weeds on the second Tuesday, while other have tried to fertilize them," Wolff said.
When Livingston got up to speak, Haynie led a standing ovation for him. Livingston said it is time to "man up" and change the town's form of government.
“We need an individual who can sit down with the other mayors, sit down with the governor, and speak for this town," he said.
Mayor Billy Swails proposed putting a strong-mayor referendum on the ballot in 2012 but was quickly rebuffed by council members and dropped the effort.
The strong-mayor referendum idea isn't dead. It will go to a Town Council committee, and could possibly return for a vote in July.