Thanks but No Thanks

Little Mountain’s quandary: Who will lead small town?

abeam@thestate.comDecember 19, 2012 

— Marty Frick was at home one night last month when a friend called to tell him he was the new mayor of Little Mountain.

This was surprising to Frick –a maintenance supervisor at USC – because he did not run for mayor. In fact, no one ran for mayor of this tiny Newberry County town.

It is common to have no one file for elections in small towns. Town officials hold their election anyway, and the person with the most write-in votes wins.

But it is uncommon for the write-in winners to decline to serve – which is what happened in Little Mountain, leaving state and local officials to ponder: What happens to a government if no one will lead it?

While Little Mountain – population 292 – is small, it is far from sleepy.

Since 1999, the town has received at least $25 million in public investment, mostly in state and federal grants. That is $85,616.44 per person. The 1.5-square-mile town now has nine public parks, a helicopter pad for medical emergencies and a sewer system that just went online two months ago.

Little Mountain is an old town searching for new ideas to preserve its traditions – including acquiring land around the intersection with Interstate 26 in an attempt to ward off what town leaders disparage as the “uncontrolled growth” of nearby Chapin. The town has placed conservation easements on land surrounding Little Mountain to create a hiking trail that would end in a picnic spot and scenic overlook. There also are plans for a retirement community behind the fire station, and, if $55,000 can be found, to finish a new community center.

Until the town’s leadership issue can be resolved, Councilman Melvin Bowers, mayor pro tem, will be the acting mayor. But he does not want the job either, citing his wife’s health problems and his responsibilities with his small farm.

“Most of the men in town are former mayors,” he said. “We’re going to have to get a mayor. We’ll just keep opening it up until someone agrees to take it.”

History and conflict

Little Mountain was founded in 1890 when Noah Boland donated land for a depot on the Columbia, Newberry and Laurens Railroad.

The town gets its name from Little Mountain, an 810-foot tall rock of kyanite – a mineral used in spark plugs, among other things. Geologists call it a monadnock – a weather-resistant rock that erodes slower than everything else around it. It has three peaks, dubbed the “Carolina Alps” by former mayor and current Democratic state Rep. Walt McLeod.

The town is known for the Little Mountain Reunion, an annual folk festival that dates back to 1882.

And therein lies part of the political rub.

Organizers canceled the Little Mountain Reunion this year because of “conflicts dealing with Little Mountain Town Council,” according to the festival website. Council would not let the festival organizers sell alcohol because they feared the town could be held liable in court if something bad happened.

Councilman Bowers said the Reunion is primarily a fundraiser for community organizations, with most of its money coming from alcohol sales. Things got ugly at Little Mountain Town Council meetings, with residents posting things critical of council and the mayor on Facebook.

When it was time to file for re-election, Mayor Buddy Johnson announced he would retire.

“I feel old and I’m tired,” said Johnson, who will turn 70 next year. “We’ve had so many projects going that I don’t get to do the things that I would like to do.”

Frick, a former town council member, also is the former president of the Little Mountain Reunion. Some of Frick’s friends, hoping he could bring the Reunion back, urged him to run as a write-in candidate for mayor. They even put up some campaign signs for him.

“I quickly realized I had no control over what was going to happen,” Frick said.

On election day, Frick won with 67 write-in votes. Johnson finished second with 20 votes. The third-place finisher was either Mickey Mouse or Snoop Dogg, according to Newberry County elections director Brenda Rogers.

Frick, who still lives in the house he grew up in, loves his town and does not want to leave it leaderless. But his wife too is having health problems, and Frick worried about the support he would have on Town Council after the Little Mountain Reunion issue. He said he wrestled with whether to take the job of mayor for a month.

He asked God for a sign, and he got it – in a dream.

“Let’s just put it this way: it involved snakes,” Frick said of his dream. “It was enough for me to make a decision.”

Finding a mayor

Howard Duvall, an expert on local government who was with the Municipal Association of South Carolina for 21 years, says he cannot remember a write-in candidate declining to serve.

Johnson’s term ends Dec. 31, so the town won’t have a vacancy until Jan. 1. That vacancy would trigger a special election, most likely scheduled for March 26.

Little Mountain has a lot going for it, says Mayor Johnson.

It has the highest per-capita income in Newberry County, according to Johnson, citing U.S. Census figures. The town’s poverty rate is only about 5 percent, he added.

But that makes it difficult to apply for federal Community Development Block Grants, which so many cities depend on to pay for projects. So Johnson -- who completed a three-year program at the Economic Development Institute at the University of Oklahoma – sought other state and federal grants to improve the town.

Johnson’s success in landing grants is one reason the town is having a tough time replacing him, Bowers said.

“It’s because of the large shoes that Buddy has left for the next to fill,” Bowers said. “He has a certain knowledge that most of us don’t have.”

But many in the town disagree with its aggressive pursuit of grants.

“It is a 50-50 split in the community, whether we need this or not need this. You know how it is in politics,” Frick said. “A lot of people don’t see the need for a lot of this grant money and tax-based money and everything to be spent for whatever reason.”

But the town does need a mayor.

State Rep. McLeod has asked a few people to run for the post, so far unsuccessfully.

“I’m optimistic that a positive solution will surface,” he said. “I’m confident we will continue to move the community forward.”

Reach Beam at (803) 386-7038.

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