Town of contention

This is James Island: Ray Griffin strumming a tune at Bushwackers barbershop while owner Tim Saye keeps track of chicken eggs he is incubating. Saye said he has heard some customers comment on the town, but he remains loyal to Mayor Mary Clark, and he sai

A computer contract to the mayor's son, the only bidder. A controversial bid to buy an expensive, historic plantation outside town limits. Verbal jousting between the mayor, a top election official and residents.

What's going on with the town of James Island?

Most of the recent events are about politics, Mayor Mary Clark said this week. "When you're doing something worthwhile, a lot of people will come up to attack you," she said, adding that she's not bothered by it.

"I have my blinders on like an old mule. I don't look to the right or left. I just do the task that I'm given."

The town has been engulfed in more turmoil recently than anytime in its brief history, as questions arise about whether the town is properly advertising contracts,

favoring relatives of town officials and overreaching in its bid to acquire McLeod Plantation, against the owner's wishes.

The tumult increasingly is raising the ire of residents, whose anger boiled over Tuesday night at a council meeting. The scene was reminiscent of the chaos that once roiled Hollywood, another small Charleston County town where council meetings sometimes turned into free-for-alls.

Warren Sloane of Sloane Realty likened the town controversies to the murk stirred up in the water when someone steps in pluff mud.

"The mayor has stepped in it right now, and it will be real interesting to see what comes out of it between now and the first week in June, when the (election) filing period is over," he said.

Sloane said he plans to run against Clark in the Aug. 3 election, partly because of concerns about how the town recently awarded a $49,000 contract in which her son provides a Geographic Information System and pinpoints utilities, drainage lines and ditches.

"The contract with the son was ridiculous, and part of it was the bidding process," he said. "She said it was bid out, but we're not sure where it was posted."

Clark has defended that deal, as well as an earlier $26,000 contract her son was awarded for maintaining the town website.

Sloane isn't the only one who has been critical of the deal. James Island Election Commission Chairwoman Toni Reale recently questioned the contract, and Clark promptly asked her to resign. Reale has refused, saying the mayor was "bullying" her.

Also stirring the pot is the town's attempt to use its power of eminent domain to acquire McLeod Plantation, a historic site on the island but within Charleston's city limits. The Historic Charleston Foundation, which owns McLeod, has rebuffed the offer, but Clark said the town is continuing its efforts.

Municipalities can acquire property beyond their limits without the owner's consent if there's a public purpose, but it is believed that none has done so for the public purpose of historic preservation.

"I don't think the town has the experience in renovating it, and I don't think they have any money set aside for renovating it or maintaining it," Sloane said.

A South Carolina Municipal Association official called the town's move "aggressive" and was unsure if it would hold up under state law.

Residents upset with these issues showed up at the Tuesday council meeting and mixed it up with Clark, who said she plans to have sheriff's deputies at the next meeting "to keep from having mob action."

After she was criticized during the public speaking session, Clark declared, "It's another Hate Mary Day."

Faye Lohr, a James Island resident who spent a summer years ago collecting petitions to form the town, called what's going on now "very, very, very, very sad."

"I have been going to these meetings, and it's just getting worse and worse and worse," she said, adding that she's concerned about the contracts awarded to the mayor's son. "It should be the people's town. It's not Mary Clark's town."

Tim Saye, who owns the Bushwhackers barbershop off Folly Road, said he has heard customers commenting about the town, but he remains loyal to the town and to Clark.

Saye has chickens and rabbits in the yard behind his shop, and he said the town is James Islanders' best hope to keep the city of Charleston -- and growth -- at bay.

Sign up for updates!

Get the latest political news from The Post and Courier in your inbox.

"I'm for no more growth," he said. "We'll be like Long Island in New York in a couple of years. We're just trying to hold onto the past as long as we can."

Johnny Ohlandt, a longtime supporter of the town, said he's unsure if the town will end up with McLeod, and that its contract with the mayor's son is legal.

"The main thing is to keep the thing not like a circus," he said. "I don't want to get into the politics of the town. Mary has been a stalwart of the town, and I admire what she's done."

The town's incorporation in 2006 was fueled by a mix of those wanting local rule and self-determination and by those often viscerally opposed to Mayor Joe Riley and the city of Charleston, which already has annexed about half of the island.

It's unclear how long the town will exist.

James Islanders have incorporated three times since the 1990s, but the S.C. Supreme Court struck down the first two towns. The town won at the lower court level in 2008, but Charleston appealed and final briefs are expected to be filed this month with the Supreme Court.

From there it could take months for the court to consider the case and issue a ruling.

Charleston City Councilwoman Kathleen Wilson, whose district covers part of James Island, said she's had little contact with the town, but she has heard from those wondering about the bizarre things going on there.

"I think they lost sight of why the town was created," Wilson said. "It has taken on a very personal tone between Joe Riley and Mary Clark."

Sloane said many feel Clark is owed the mayor's job because of her work to create the town years ago, "but at some point we have to put away the boxing gloves and start working with other communities to solve the problems on James Island."

But Clark asked how can she be expected to work with a government that's trying to kill the town.

"Why is the city boxing with us? It has been 17 years since we got the first town," she said. "They don't have on their boxing gloves, but their guillotine to behead us."