MOUNT PLEASANT — Financial storm clouds have been forming over this affluent suburban town, the elected government has fallen into public bickering and online sniping, and change is coming.
Some elected officials have warned that the town can't pay for all the things it has promised, such as recreational facilities and drainage improvements, without raising taxes. The mayor and his allies want to fire the town's legal team, and three of the four Town Council members who could seek reelection have decided they'd rather not.
Against this backdrop, eight candidates are competing to fill four council seats. The four winners will play important roles in determining the town's financial health, its services and regulations — even its form of government.
The town has eight council members who, along with Mayor Will Haynie, make up a nine-member council. At least three of those seats will be filled with newcomers following the Nov. 5 election, people who have never held elective office before.
If history is a guide, most of Mount Pleasant's registered voters won't bother casting ballots. In the 2017 election — a hard-fought contest that included the mayoral race between Haynie and Linda Page — fewer than 17,000 residents voted, and that was considered an unusually high turnout in the town of roughly 90,000.
Low turnout means activists and engaged voters will play an out-sized role in the Town Council contests. As a result, much campaigning has been taking place informally on social media sites including Facebook and Nextdoor, where the atmosphere has been so harsh that Councilman Jim Owens decided to drop out of the election.
His name will be on the ballot, but votes for Owens will not be counted, according to Charleston County election officials.
Owens' departure from the race left Joe Bustos, Haynie's right-hand man, as the only council member seeking reelection. The seven other candidates — none of whom have previously held a publicly elected office — will compete with him, and each other, for three open seats as well as the one Bustos now occupies.
The candidates are:
- Stephen Becker, 52, owner of a car dealership, said he decided to run for Town Council after Mount Pleasant elected officials rebuffed his plans to open a dealership in the town.
“I figured I could sit on the sidelines and crab about it, or I can throw my hat in the ring and go after a seat on Town Council and make positive changes that will encourage businesses and entrepreneurs to come and call Mount Pleasant home,” he said.
- Joe Bustos, 69, was a Town Council member from 2000 to 2009, and returned to the council in 2015. He owns Mount Pleasant Flight Training and is a former police officer and a retired Army lieutenant colonel.
Bustos has pushed for some of the strictest growth-control measures proposed on council, and has said the town’s high impact fees on new development are still not high enough. He worked closely with Haynie on the Medal of Honor Museum negotiations, shares the mayor’s belief that the town’s attorneys should be replaced, and has suggested that town services, including recreation, could be reduced to deal with budget issues.
Bustos has also led an effort, so far unsuccessful, to change the town’s form of government to one where the mayor has greater power.
- Howard R. Chapman, 73, is an engineer, former chairman of the Mount Pleasant Planning Commission, and a major in the South Carolina State Guard Engineering Command. He was founding executive director of CARTA (1997-2011) and earlier Charleston's director of traffic and transportation.
Chapman said his knowledge of traffic and transportation will help him find solutions for the town. "I am running for Town Council because I have lived in Mount Pleasant for over 40 years and want to bring civility and respect back to Town Council," he said.
- Brenda L. Corley, 49, is principal of the charter high school Oceanside Collegiate Academy, and was previously an assistant principal at Wando High School. She said residents want more green spaces, recreational facilities and better roads, and that she’ll work to make that happen.
“In me, you get someone with a track record of leadership in the community, decisiveness when needed, and someone who understands that even when making the tough decisions, you can maintain trust and credibility,” she said.
- Gary Davis, 79, is the owner of DavisAir, a local aircraft charter and management company. He’s running a self-funded campaign with the theme: “It’s all about livability.”
Davis was the appointed vice chairman and treasurer of Fox Chapel Area School District in the Pittsburgh area for 26 years, and he holds degrees in accounting and finance. He said he’s currently reviewing the town’s budget to look ways to support livability goals without raising taxes.
- Laura Hyatt, 54, is a pharmacist who has worked in the area for 30 years. She said she’s running for public office for the first time because “I have a passion for fighting to preserve the character of our town and our quality of life.”
Hyatt has offered few specifics, but her Facebook page has attracted supportive comments from allies of the mayor and supporters of Save Shem Creek.
- Mike Lawrie, 37, is a cybersecurity engineer who says he will “work for limited government, one that runs the town but not your life.” He ran unsuccessfully for the District 2 Constituent School Board last year.
Lawrie opposes the town’s recent ban on plastic food packaging and straws, questions the town’s agreement to spend millions on a Medal of Honor museum, and strongly opposes restrictions on residents who want to rent their homes for short periods of time.
- Jake Rambo, 32, was principal of James B. Edwards Elementary until he resigned in 2017 citing “fundamental, philosophical differences” with the Charleston School District’s leadership. He ran unsuccessfully for a seat on the school board the following year, and is currently business development and marketing director for Grace & Grit restaurant, and for a general contracting company Construction Professionals Inc.
“Although the issues facing our town are complex, my goal is simple: Put residents first,” Rambo said.
While most candidates have made general statements about protecting the town’s quality of life, some key differences between them have emerged at candidate forums.
Becker and Lawrie, for example, said at an East Cooper GOP forum that they would cancel the town’s ban on single-use plastic bags, if given the chance. Becker and Chapman were the only candidates who said they don’t support the “permit allocation” limits on annual building permits.
At the same forum, Bustos, Corley and Rambo said they would remove and replace the town’s legal team — a position shared by the mayor and officers of Save Shem Creek. Bustos on Oct. 13 posted on Facebook a photo of a sample election ballot with his name, Corley's, Rambo's and Hyatt's selected for the four Town Council seats.
Despite growing warnings about the town’s financial condition, every candidate at the East Cooper GOP forum said they would support reducing taxes, fees and permits. Hyatt and Davis did not attend the forum.