MOUNT PLEASANT — This town's leadership rode into office on pledges to put the brakes on growth and development — and they have delivered — but now fault lines have developed on Town Council along with public disputes and pleas on social media for officials to behave.
“There’s too much personality conflict and petty bickering," said Jimmy Bagwell, a former Mount Pleasant councilman who is chairman of the Save Shem Creek Corp. "Maybe we ought to lock them in room and not let them out until they can get along."
Bagwell said Town Council's May meeting, when council members quarreled about a resolution supporting the Equal Rights Amendment, debated the meaning of May Day and discussed one council member's alleged insulting of the mayor, "was one of the most unsettling meetings I’ve been to in a while."
Two early opponents of rapid growth and development in Mount Pleasant, Councilmen Jim Owens and Gary Santos, now find themselves targeted by one-time allies in Facebook groups that follow town politics. That's because most recently they didn't go along with Mayor Will Haynie's unsuccessful attempt to fire the town's lawyers.
"For them to come after (Owens) the way they did, that was inappropriate," Santos said. “People feel 10 feet tall behind a keyboard."
“We have to move on because we’re doing the business of the town and it’s not personal," he said.
Although sometimes it is personal.
There have been two unsuccessful attempts on Town Council to censure first-term Councilman Kevin Cunnane. The blunt-talking former New York City firefighter was criticized for insulting elected and appointed officials, including the mayor.
"I didn't curse at him," Cunnane told The Post and Courier on Monday, objecting to one characterization of his insulting of the mayor. "I called him a sissy and a bigot."
Haynie has faced criticism for keeping most council members in the dark about plans for the Medal of Honor Museum. He recently filed a Freedom of Information Act request for a 2018 town police report involving Cunnane that later became the subject of news reports and a town lawsuit.
“I’m in the middle of some of the sideshow issues, but those are sideshows," Haynie said. "We are succeeding and succeeding well."
So much succeeding
When Haynie decided to run for mayor in 2017 halfway through his first term on council, he said the town's rapid growth — a population that near-tripled since 1990 — was the only issue in the election. His lopsided victory over incumbent Mayor Linda Page indicated he was correct, and a group of like-minded candidates also won seats on the council.
Of the council members and mayor serving before the 2015 election, only Santos remained after the election in 2017. Santos said the results were a sign of support for his previous and often lonely efforts to restrain growth.
“It’s kind of a validation of what we’ve been doing," he said, after being re-elected in 2017.
The council imposed some of South Carolina's highest impact fees on development, approved annual limits on residential building permits, capped the height of new buildings along Coleman Boulevard, imposed moratoriums on apartment construction and adopted new rules to protect trees and reduce stormwater runoff, along with other development restrictions.
Haynie and Councilman Joe Bustos emerged as close allies, the mayor and his right-hand man. It was Bustos who attempted to censure Cunnane for insulting Haynie. But Mount Pleasant's mayor is essentially a ninth member of Town Council with limited executive power — the town has a full-time town administrator, not a strong full-time mayor as in Charleston and North Charleston.
"The problem on council is you've got two people trying to run things," said Cunnane, referring to Haynie and Bustos.
On some issues important to the politically active Save Shem Creek group, Haynie and Bustos have found themselves alone or nearly so. They were outvoted 6-2 on an attempt to remove planned medians from Coleman Boulevard in early 2018 after an engineer for the town said parts of the road plan would have to be redesigned if the medians were removed.
In May, they were on the losing side of a 5-3 vote to replace the town's lawyers — something Save Shem Creek has advocated for years. The group believes the lawyers have given bad advice, particularly on some development-related issues.
After that vote, an officer of Save Shem Creek posted on Facebook that "people need to remember the council members who are protecting (the lawyers)" and named Cunnane, Owens and Santos. The council seats held by Cunnane and Owens are up for election this year, along with those of Bustos and Bob Brimmer.
“I get the feeling that anything Mayor Haynie wants, those folks do not want — Jim Owens, Gary Santos, Kevin Cunnane," Bagwell said.
Owens said the town has a strong, independent Town Council and it's fine that council members don't always agree.
"I guess that's part of democracy," said Owens, who championed the town's ban on single-use plastic bags and foam containers, which was approved by Town Council 8-1 last year.
Gibbs Knotts, chair of the Political Science Department at the College of Charleston, does not find the rift on Town Council surprising.
"It was a wave that swept a new group in and they may have had an overall philosophy … but there are still factions and divisions and that’s partly human nature and partly just government," he said.
“I wouldn’t say it’s necessarily a bad thing," Knotts said. "They are supposed to have disagreements and sort things out."
Owens, Santos, Bustos and Haynie were previously seen as the Save Shem Creek voting bloc. Cunnane was supported by many in the group when he ran for the remaining two years of Haynie's council term because Cunnane's opponent had supported Linda Page.
“You’re correct in your observation that it’s become contentious," Bustos said. "I don't think it's repairable at this point."
“It’s across the board," he said. "Folks have gotten argumentative about everything."
On the edge of all the friction surrounding Haynie, Bustos, Cunnane, Santos and Owens are the four other council members: Brimmer, Tom O'Rourke, Kathy Landing and Guang Ming Whitley.
"If you don’t have a thick skin, you shouldn’t be doing this job," said O'Rourke, the former Charleston County Parks and Recreation director who was the top vote-getter in the 2017 election. “Give me the guy who votes their conscience, all day, even if they don’t agree with me."
"People are upset at me because I was in favor of the Equal Rights Amendment, which I believe in, and because I didn’t think we should fire the attorneys," said the first-term councilman. “I think split votes are a good thing, good for discussion."
O'Rourke has said he won't seek re-election in 2021. Landing is scheduled to announce Monday that she'll be running for Congress in the 1st District.
One thing many council members agree on is that social media — Facebook, in particular — has been a caustic ingredient added to the mix. More than a half-dozen Facebook pages and groups in Mount Pleasant are devoted to politics and their comment sections often fill with bile.
There's Save Shem Creek Corp, Committee to Preserve Mount Pleasant, Mount Pleasant United We Stand, Mt Pleasant Residents First, Save North Mount Pleasant, Mount Pleasant Votes and others.
"I think social media is one of the worst things that’s ever happened," Bustos said. Most of those interviewed for this article decried Facebook's influence on public discourse, as well.
“Anybody can be a keyboard bully," said Owens. "They aren’t putting their lives on hold to be a public servant."
While Bustos said the rift on Town Council may not be repairable, O'Rourke said things could get worse.
“We’re about to hit another election," he said, "and it might get dirty and ugly."