New Chapin comment guidelines under fire

tflach@thestate.comMarch 10, 2014 

A new feud is stirring in Chapin over Mayor Skip Wilson’s guidelines on answering questions on Town Hall operations.

It’s arisen amid a legal battle among leaders in the northern Lexington County town of 1,500 residents over decisions by Wilson that other town leaders say came without their acquiescence.

The standards include:

• A warning against comments on social media that “insult or disparage” Town Hall, its leaders and employees.

• A requirement that all officials and employees note that opinions expressed are personal and to withhold their association with the town “when writing in a non-official capacity.”

• Centralized control over dealing with reporters, in most cases to town spokeswoman Karen Owens, a Wilson appointee.

The standards on information aren’t an attempt to muzzle dissent but provide advice and outline conduct that those associated with Town Hall should observe, Wilson said.

“Given the rising interest with social media, there needs to be some structure and guidance,” he said.

But his ground rules are fueling fresh complaints that Wilson is dictatorial.

“It sounds like he’s trying to gag everybody other than what he wants heard,” said Councilman Robbie Frick, one of three town leaders at odds with the mayor.

Council members and appointees to town panels are free to air opinions without concern, Wilson said.

But others see the standards as a threat.

“It’s another instance of him trying to control the whole thing,” Councilwoman Bibi Atkins said.

Wilson put those guidelines – developed with advice from the Municipal Association of South Carolina and other communities – in place without review by council members.

His plan is under fire from one source not affiliated with Chapin.

The standards are “heavy-handed” and contrary to free-speech guarantees, said Bill Rogers, executive director of the South Carolina Press Association.

It suggests “trying to manage the news, spin news,” he said. “It makes me wonder what they’re trying to hide.”

Meanwhile, Wilson’s ability to make decisions unilaterally came into question at a court hearing Monday.

Andrew Syrett, lawyer for unhappy council members, said Wilson is “exercising discretion which is not afforded him.”

The feud centers on Wilson’s refusal to allow discussion about changes made since he took office Jan. 7 when town leaders meet.

The mayor is “the CEO (chief executive officer) of the town” and can do many things without council approval, said his lawyer, Todd Carroll.

Most of the dissatisfaction amounts to political differences that should be left to upcoming ballots on town leaders and not in court, Carroll told Circuit Judge Thomas Cooper.

Other town leaders are so upset at his lack of cooperation that paralysis is possible, Syrett warned.

Many decisions at Town Hall “may come to a halt” if Wilson isn’t reined in, he said.

Reach Flach at (803) 771-8483.

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