Summerville Mayor Wiley Johnson lost his first battle with Town Council this week, but it’s a safe bet the war will rage on.
And on. And on.
With a 4-3 vote, the council took some old ordinances off the books and spelled out in no uncertain terms just what power the mayor has. Or, more importantly, what powers he doesn’t have — chief among them the ability to fire staff and control council’s agenda.
Council members called it housekeeping, and say they were just following up on promises the mayor made during his campaign.
Peter Gorman, who was Johnson’s campaign manager, called it “a coup.” Now he has 100 volunteers circulating a petition to change Summerville’s form of government to a strong-mayor format.
Some council members say such a move is ironic, given that Johnson campaigned on taking away powers granted to former Mayor Bill Collins and returning to a council form of government.
Gorman says, “They started it, and now we’re going to have to end it.”
Behind the scenes there are stories of threats, reports of low morale at Town Hall and rumors that some senior staffers are updating their resumes. Yes, it’s getting ugly.
There is bad blood here, and more yet to be spilled.
All this goes back to 2011, when Collins was elected mayor.
Collins favored a strong-mayor form of government, such as Charleston and North Charleston have, but council wanted no part of it.
They agreed to let Collins serve as town administrator in addition to his mayoral duties, and raised his pay. It saved the town $100,000 a year and, in many ways, council members say it gave them more control than ever.
But some people called it a back-door to a strong-mayor form of government.
It also made Collins the face of the town’s decision to allow a new hotel in downtown Summerville, which no doubt played a hand in his defeat last November. Some people don’t like the idea, to put it mildly.
During the campaign, Johnson said he wanted to strip the town administrator duties from the mayor’s office.
“We have experienced the capitulation by the Council to a ‘strong mayor’ form of government that only the voters have the right to decide,” Johnson told The Journal Scene a week before the election.
So immediately after Johnson won, council began talking about separating the mayor and town administrator job and returning the job to Summerville B.C. (Before Collins), lower pay and all.
The mayor fought to delay the vote, claimed council was not following proper procedure. They accused him of trying to block a vote on the ordinances, some of which had been sitting on the books since the early 1900s — and has been technically moot since 1975, when the town chose to govern with a strong council.
So what’s really going on here?
Well, that depends on who you ask.
Both sides claim they have extended “olive branches” to the other, only to be shot down.
There is very little communication between the factions. Many council members say the mayor won’t take meetings with them, while others claim the council is out to get him.
Johnson’s supporters say the council is seeking retribution for his defeat of Collins — and some of those nasty things he said about them during the campaign.
But council members say Johnson came in not knowing what the mayor could and could not do and, for all his talk of wanting to limit the office’s powers, immediately wanted to start firing people.
Johnson has said publicly that he knows the mayor does not have such powers, but others insist he has tried.
After the vote Wednesday night, Gorman said the group Summerville Concerned Citizens would circulate a petition to change the form of government to what is essentially a strong-mayor by referendum.
He says Johnson has no relationship to the group, is not behind the move and hasn’t been consulted about it. Gorman says it is simply a reaction to council changing the job duties of the man elected by the people.
Councilman Walter Bailey says nothing of the sort is going on.
“They say they want to go back to a strong-mayor form of government that we’ve never had,” Bailey says. “You can’t go back to something we’ve never had.”
Other council members note that Collins was made administrator by resolution, at council’s pleasure, and there was no change in the law. And Johnson called for hiring a separate administrator, they note, and they immediately complied — what’s the problem?
So now this group has to come to some agreement on a new administrator. Good luck with that. The forecast calls for a 4-3 vote.
Then there is the lingering threat of a sea change at Town Hall. Some officials say a referendum to change the form of government could not get on the ballot before 2017 and, if passed, wouldn’t take effect until 2019 — after the next mayoral election.
In other words, this war is just beginning.
Reach Brian Hicks at firstname.lastname@example.org.