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March 23, 2014

Squabbles in 3 Lexington County communities create concern

Disagreement is common as town officials settle on decisions but the squabbles in three Lexington County communities are extreme, some political and business leaders say.

Disagreement is common as town officials settle on decisions but the squabbles in three Lexington County communities are extreme, some political and business leaders say.

“Instead of being civil, it’s really gotten out of hand,” said Randy Halfacre, a former Lexington mayor who is president of the Greater Lexington Chamber of Commerce.

The tone of the friction is disturbing, former Batesburg-Leesville Mayor James Wiszowaty said.

“It’s almost like some of this is vendettas,” he said. “Increasingly, those who win office no longer recognize that politics is often about compromise instead of getting your way.”

Feuds that erupted in the past month feature:

• Tempers flaring anew in Batesburg-Leesville, leading to the ejection of Councilman Steve Cain from a meeting that he disrupted March 10.
• New Chapin Mayor Skip Wilson promising to seek harmony, after three Town Council members lost a legal challenge to some of his decisions. Wilson’s pledge faces skepticism he will modify a management style that some fellow council members say is imperial.
• West Columbia Mayor Joe Owens saying he faces retribution from some City Council members who want to strip him of his ability to oversee their agenda, a change supporters say is permissible but uncommon.

Officials at the Municipal Association of South Carolina are offering advice on calming some of the hostility, a task its staff undertakes a few dozen times yearly in South Carolina’s 270 municipalities.

The infighting stems from a variety of factors, association officials say, from a mix of newcomers whose visions vary considerably from incumbents to strong personality differences.

“When you mix that all together, conflicts can arise,” association spokeswoman Reba Campbell said.

The seeds of discord were planted with the election Nov. 5 of newcomers for mayor and council in Chapin and West Columbia and a ballot outcome keeping longtime antagonists in place in Batesburg-Leesville.

Turnover among town leaders forced by elections always opens the way for tension, some officials say..

“There’s going to be some acclimation pains,” County Councilman Todd Cullum said. “It’s unfortunate but repairable.”

But Halfacre worries that partisan rancor in Congress and at the State House is seeping into town halls.

“That polarization is beginning to invade things locally,” he said. “Everyone needs to recognize we’ve got to get along and collaborate once campaigns are over.”

It’s uncertain whether the conflicts in the three communities will settle down soon.

In Batesburg-Leesville, new Mayor Rita Crapps is unapologetic for Cain’s removal, saying it prevented chaos and stopped antics she won’t tolerate. The ejection came after he poured water overflowing a glass while pressing a point about sewage disposal at a meeting in February and complained to police about Crapps viewing his social media site.

In Chapin, Wilson’s image of inflexibility is producing warnings of long-lasting paralysis at Town Hall.

In West Columbia, Owens is trying to rally support to stop changes that some council members say will stay in place regardless of who is mayor to prevent a recurrence of what they say is a dictatorial approach.

Those concerned about the simultaneous outbreaks of bickering in the three communities point to ill will that has persisted among South Congaree officials for a decade.

“You try to get them together and quit fighting, but that hasn’t happened,” County Councilman Bobby Keisler said of the town of 2,300 residents near Columbia Metropolitan Airport.

An image of constant turmoil is a deterrent to the goal of county leaders eager to attract development that brings in jobs, Halfacre said.

“It’s like trying to build on quicksand,” he said. “People want an anchor, not instability.”

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