Bolton: Richland, Lexington town councils giving their municipalities a bad name

Editorial WriterMay 22, 2014 

Warren Bolton

TIM DOMINICK/TDOMINICK@THESTATE.

— SOME MIDLANDS city and town councils are earning themselves quite a reputation.

Unfortunately, it’s not a good one: In recent months, they’ve been embroiled in power struggles, infighting and petty politics that have done little to promote good governance but much to damage the public’s trust in elected leadership.

More than that, news of their rambunctiousness has spread across the web for all to see, including prospective residents, visitors and business interests.

In today’s Internet-driven, social-media-conscious age, it doesn’t take long to sully your image — whether you’re an individual or a city council.

Do a quick Google search of the councils in Columbia, West Columbia, Chapin and Batesburg-Leesville, and you’ll find that their antics have earned them some notoriety.

When I sat at my computer on Sunday and typed in “West Columbia City Council,” I found these headlines among the first 10 items that appeared:

“West Columbia Council: Mayoral Changes Needed: The West Columbia City Council held a first vote that would strip the city mayor of some of his responsibilities.”

“Council member to answer questions about council meeting fireworks — accusations, fireworks lobbed in West Columbia City Council.”

“Mayor loses showdown in West Columbia.”

“Citizens of West Columbia question city council’s professionalism.”

Here are some not-so-flattering headlines I found among the first 10 responses for the other three councils:

Chapin Town Council

“Chapin mayor overrules council to pay his legal bill.”

“Mayor transition in Chapin rocky.”

“Chapin mayor suspends town clerk, alleging financial irregularities.”

“Town of Chapin requests formal investigation by SLED.”

Batesburg-Leesville

Town Council

“Scuffle at Batesburg-Leesville council meeting” (with video).

“Batesburg-Leesville mayor defends ejecting councilman.”

“Excerpt from 4/12/10 Batesburg-Leesville, SC town council meeting” (Councilman Steve Cain ignores Robert’s Rules of Order and is removed from the council session).

Of course, that last one shouldn’t be confused with the more recent council meeting from which Mayor Rita Crapps ejected Councilman Cain.

Columbia City Council

Interesting enough, although Columbia’s council has seen the most volatility as it has dealt with high-profile issues that have exacerbated strained relationships among council members, only one of the first 10 entries speaks directly to the dysfunction: “Columbia City Council can’t agree to be civil.”

Of course there is plenty on the web chronicling council members’ power plays, personality clashes and perpetual controversy over all things Bull Street as well as other matters. But that’s not what popped up immediately during my search.

That said, three of the first 10 responses did refer to the council’s struggle to address homelessness, and not in the best of light: “The City Council of Columbia, South Carolina, Isn’t Sure if it Voted to Kick Homeless People Out of Downtown Or Not”; “Columbia City Council tries again with a homeless plan”; “Columbia, South Carolina Criminalizes Homelessness In Unanimous Vote.”

Columbia, West Columbia, Batesburg-Leesville and Chapin elected officials ought to embarrassed enough to want to turn things around and begin restoring their reputations and the sullied images of their municipalities. We can only wonder how this affects anyone considering moving their families or businesses to the Midlands. Who wants to move to a place where the elected leaders engage in constant hand-to-hand verbal and political combat rather than civil debate about the future of their communities?

On Columbia City Council, some members have refused to support proposals simply because they come from the mayor; the council and mayor have pushed initiatives through without considering legitimate calls for due diligence; and council members have resorted to name-calling and infighting.

In Batesburg-Leesville, we’ve seen the mayor toss a councilman out of a meeting. In Chapin, an ongoing power struggle between the new mayor and Town Council has led to all sorts of accusations and even a court battle. A power play in West Columbia ended in the council taking away the mayor’s control over the meeting agenda.

I wrote in an earlier column that our local elected officials have been infected by the conflict-oriented, polarized, incompliant temperament that has gripped our national and state politics. But there is no excuse for those who operate the government closest to the people choosing to spend more or as much time fighting with one another as they do governing. When they aren’t on the same page, basic service delivery and people’s quality of life are in jeopardy.

Think about it: As nice a town as Chapin is, your first thoughts about it are hardly pleasant these days. Ever since Mayor Skip Wilson entered office, apparently with the intent of ruling with an iron hand, there’s been chaos. While Mayor Wilson might be winning the legal battle over how much control he has over the town and the council’s agenda and meetings, he’s also on the verge of losing a town.

The constant skirmishing is beginning to cost Chapin. Recently, the mayor angered the three council members with whom he has been feuding when he used approximately $22,000 in town money to pay a legal bill generated by his battle with council members. The council members had tried to block the payment, saying they are footing their own legal bills.

Columbia at least is attempting to make a change, although it remains to be seen how effective it will be. Most members of Columbia City Council signed a civility pledge, and recently the council spent time at Fort Jackson going through bonding exercises. The meeting immediately following the time at Fort Jackson went about as well as any has in the past year or so.

But while Columbia City Council deserves a pat on the back for making the effort, it will only be hollow symbolism if this doesn’t translate into something real. This council must not only be civil, but it must develop a spirit of compromise and unity that translates into tangible progress that improves the fortunes of our state’s capital city.

All of these councils must decide whether they’re going to continue jousting for power and position or whether they’re going to govern in the best interest of the people.

Voters should reward them accordingly at the ballot box.

Reach Mr. Bolton at (803) 771-8631 or wbolton@thestate.com.

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