Council conflict on James Island

James Island Mayor Mary Clark is seen through a window during executive session as she listens to town attorney Bo Wilson. Clark abruptly called for executive session during the public comments portion of Tuesday evening's Town Council meeting.

Brad Nettles

JAMES ISLAND -- Mayor Mary Clark abruptly called for a "break" after town residents applauded her critics at a Town Council meeting Tuesday night, then took the council into executive session that may not have been legal.

She said after the tumultuous meeting she will have law enforcement present next time council meets "to keep from having mob action."

"This is going to come to a screeching halt, and I'm not going to have it. I will have law enforcement and they will clear the building, I suppose," Clark declared.

After the approximately 25-minute closed-door session, the public speaking session continued, and so did sharp words between Clark and some town residents. One speaker, Lyndy Palmer, raised Clark's ire by saying, "This town is not running. It's falling apart. You are not capable of running the town any longer."

Clark sarcastically pronounced after the public speaking session ended that "It's another Hate Mary Day." She added that, had she known that after 14 years of helping found the town three times and building it, "that it would come out this way, I would never have done it."

Clark was feisty as ever after the meeting and vowed not to back down. "If any of them would be willing to go out back with me and have it out, I would love to do it," she said.

Clark opened the meeting by saying she used to attend Charleston City Council meetings, and that in spite of her many differences with Charleston Mayor Joe Riley, "I gave respect to Mayor Riley."

She told the meeting she expected to be respected even while being criticized. "Growling, fussing and fighting -- that's not proper respect," Clark said. She urged residents to fight the town's "common enemies. We can't afford to fight each other," she said.

In recent weeks, criticism of Clark has grown, and many questions are being raised about contracts council awarded to her son, her zeal to acquire McLeod Plantation, council's handling of road maintenance and drainage issues, a long-running standoff with council over a ditch the town deepened, and other matters.

Clark objected first to applause made for comments by Van Fleming. He slammed the council's public address system. "It's pathetic. We came here interested and would like to know what's going on," he said.

After the clapping, Clark stated the meeting is not "a theater," where "people clap for performances."

Several speakers later, David Savage called the contract given to Clark's son nepotism and "a fiasco," and questioned Clark's plans to use eminent domain to acquire McLeod Plantation if negotiations to buy it fail.

"This is not your town, ma'am. It's our town," Savage told Clark.

Clark called the applause that followed disrespectful. "Let's go into executive session," she said.

Executive session was a listed item on the agenda, but it was to happen later in the meeting. Clark agreed after the meeting that she probably did not state the reasons for going into executive session, but that the planned topics were listed on the agenda.

S.C. Press Association attorney Jay Bender said Tuesday that the action likely was illegal under the state's Freedom of Information Act. He said that council should have motioned for and approved a change in the agenda, and that Clark should have stated the reasons for the executive session.

After the meeting, Councilman Leonard Blank expressed doubts that law enforcement would remove people from the meeting for clapping. "You can't clear the room because somebody is clapping," Blank said.

He added, "People come to council meetings to be heard, and when they clap they are letting (the speaker) know they are behind them. I don't think it's improper."