Petition brings debate over mayor's powers to fall ballot

VIDEO: Petition brings debate over mayor's powers to fall ballot

SUMMERVILLE, SC (WCSC) - Debate continues in Summerville over the role of the mayor and whether those mayoral powers should change.

Petition organizers submitted nearly 6,000 signatures Monday to Dorchester County Board of Elections calling for citizens to vote on those powers
in a fall referendum.

"We're supporting the mayor," petitioner Homer Gonzalez said. "We've always supported the mayor, and we want to give him a chance to be mayor."

Gonzalez and others have petitioned since February to get enough signatures for a referendum. According to the S.C. Municipal Assc., an election to change the form of municipal government can be called for by a certified petition of 15 percent of the qualified electors or by an ordinance of council.

Currently, the town operates in a "council form," where the mayor presides over meetings, has ceremonial duties and votes equal to other council members.

In February 2016, Summerville Town Council passed two ordinances changing mayoral powers. While former mayor Bill Collins was in office, he held mayoral duties and administrative powers, in order for the town to save money. When he left office, he resigned his powers and they were split into two.

"A lot of my supporters felt they had been disfranchised," Mayor Wiley Johnson said. "They voted me into office under the same ordinances that
had been in place since 1948."

With enough signatures for a referendum, voters will decide whether to keep a council form of town government or change to a "mayor-council form," also referred to as a "strong mayor" form. Under a mayor-council form, the mayor acts as chief administrative officer, oversees the budget and town employees, among other duties.

"I didn't want a referendum for a mayor-council form, but I think in the end it might be best for Summerville," Mayor Johnson said. "Charleston has a mayor-council form, and it allows you a little more latitude with problems that need to be dealt with immediately."

Some locals want to keep Summerville's government as-is. Cape Cod transplant Diana Barth said she likes the council form of government and is a member of Positively Summerville, a group she said, "basically says, we need seven people deciding. We don't need one person making unilateral decisions, that's too much power concentrated in one person's hand."

"People objected to it with Mayor Collins becoming town administrator," Barth said. "Why would you want to turn back the clock to that, why would you make that a permanent form of government?"

"This is a really good town, with really good people," Diane Frankenberger, also a Positively Summerville member, said. "To get that many signatures if they're all validated, I have to admire that, that shows passion. But at the same time, these were powers that Mayor Myers never had…"
 
Petition organizer Peter Gorman said in a press release that volunteers have been working for six months to collect signatures to bring the question to voters on the fall ballot.

"All those people that signed the petition may not be in favor of the mayor-council form of government," Mayor Johnson said. "It simply was to put the referendum on the ballot and let the people decide, and I'm fine with that."

The Dorchester Board of Elections still needs to validate the petition's signatures before the question of mayoral powers is added to the fall ballot.

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