During the monthly Mount Pleasant Town Council meeting last week, the topic of moving to a strong-mayor form of government was discussed. Currently operating as a council-strong government, the conversation quickly evolved into a debate about how all elected positions are filled in the town.

Councilmember Joe Bustos asked the elected body to review a consideration to change the Town of Mount Pleasant to a strong-mayor form of government. He explained he brought up the matter this month so there would be enough time for this to be placed on the ballot this fall, should the council approve a referendum. 

Bustos walked the council through a slideshow explaining the various forms of governments used throughout the state. He explained that 142 of the 270 municipalities in the state operated with a mayor-council form of government.

Mount Pleasant currently operates as a weak-mayor government. The mayor's position in a strong-mayor government would make the mayor the town's top executive with authority to fire and hire individuals at their own discretion. For the mayors at nearby municipalities of Charleston and North Charleston that operate with a strong mayor, it is a full-time position that carries a six-figure salary.

Currently, Mayor Will Haynie is considered a member of council that carries more responsibilities, more compensation and is granted the ability to appoint people to committees in the town. Bustos suggested the council put the referendum in the form of a question to voters in Mount Pleasant whether they want to remain as a council-strong form of government or if they'd rather transition to a mayor-strong government.

Bustos and Haynie confirmed to the council that this referendum would not go into effect until after Haynie's elected term that runs through 2021. An ordinance for a referendum would have to be passed by council and sent to the Charleston County Board of Voter Registration and Elections for review by Aug. 7 in order to be placed on the ballot this November.

During the discussion, councilmember Tom O'Rourke said that he doesn't think a lot of the council members understand all the intricacies of all forms of government and would be asking Bustos for copies of the slides displayed.

"I wish that we could have a discussion in committee, Police, Judicial and Legal probably, next month to talk about all governments. And it would be good if we could bring someone in from the Municipal Association here," O'Rourke said.

Council discussed the responsibilities of the mayor and asked if he could currently act on major or urgent decisions with other municipal decisionmakers in an effective manner. Other members discussed that the wording of a referendum must be extremely specific so the residents of the town would understand what changes would occur.

Bustos said he's received questions about what if someone who is incapable or doesn't do well is elected as a strong mayor for Mount Pleasant. He thinks this would cause people in the town to pay more attention to who they're voting for mayor.

The council discussed several times throughout the meeting how much larger and complex the Town of Mount Pleasant has grown over the years. Bustos said that this is a reason why they should consider adding an executive branch of government to the town, in addition to their current legislative and judicial branches. 

Both residents and council members at the meeting expressed they didn't feel as though it would be fair for the council to place a referendum on the ballot to change the form of government, when two years ago they denied a referendum on the ballot for single-member districts. In 2017, town voters gathered 8,300 signatures on a petition for a referendum on electing council members regardless of where they lived in Mount Pleasant or to divide the town into council districts. The petition fell short of the mandatory signatures to place the referendum on the ballot.

Councilmember Kevin Cunnane told the council that he was prepared to vote this down for fairness to the individuals who created the petition in 2017 and that this should have to be done through a petition as well to let people decide.

"Personally, I think this is an issue that can be discussed. However, I really am not going to support anything regarding the mayor's powers until we have a discussion that the residents brought to us, which was how we are elected," councilmember Bob Brimmer said.

Brimmer explained that if they do anything with forms of government, the council should start by knowing how council is elected and how powers are shared across the town to give them a view of the role the mayor should have. He said looking at the strong-mayor/weak-mayor first would be a backwards approach.

Haynie said looking at all forms of government as O'Rourke suggested is perfectly valid and that they'll get the Municipal Association to come to the Police, Judicial and Legal Committee in July. He also encouraged all councilmembers to attend committee meetings so they could hear the discussions held at that level to keep the council from backtracking.

The discussion of a mayor-form government will be discussed at the July 1 meeting and possibly return to council for a vote on July 9.

Agenda matters

Council reviewed the final reading of an ordinance to amend a Code of Ordinance related to placing matters on the council meeting agendas. Prior to coming before full council, agenda items would need to go through committee first unless deemed a timely matter for the council to act upon.

David G. Pagliarini, the town's attorney confirmed the language of the ordinance further for the council. He said the ordinance says if the matter is placed on a committee agenda, it is then eligible for placement on council agenda regardless of its outcome.

Haynie elaborated that this means if something dies in committee, it can still come before council.

"I voted against this last month. I think it was 8-1. This is basically tyranny that we have going on. We have nine council members elected by everyone in town and somebody wants to control whether your elected council members can place things on the agenda," Cunnane said. "Tonight we've had things brought up on the agenda that didn't go through committee from various people and nobody seems to have a problem with it. But now we're going to codify that you have to go through what I call a hierarchy of council members."

Cunnane said since he is not a chairperson of a committee, he'd need someone that was to endorse his idea to get it on an agenda. He explained this would create a second class council member and thinks it's wrong to create pockets of power on the council and make someone subordinate to a council chair.

O'Rourke said he understands what Cunnane was saying but through the history with town governments, this situation could be much worse. He said he's seen council members before not get put on any committees and get nothing. O'Rourke said it's bad but at the end of the day all the final business takes place at council with nine votes.

Cunnane said even though it could be worse, that's not a reason to do this. He said this creates a sub-ordinance instead of treating their council as equals.

"I think this is a change in law and under this mayor's rein, or this council's rein we've had public comment reduced. We've had the minutes reduced and shrunk down and we've had a few complaints of people that want to read those. And now we're trying to get the agendas limited and controlled. This is about control," Cunnane said. "We're trying to contract the control of nine people on council to a small group of people. That's tyranny and that's why I'm against it."

The ordinance to amend the wording of placing matters on the agenda passed 7-2, with Cunnane and O'Rourke as the votes in dissent.