Bolton: Can anything good come out of Chapin, SC?

08/06/2014 9:00 PM

08/06/2014 7:34 PM

CHAPIN MAYOR Skip Wilson doesn't come across as a bull in a china shop as he tells me about his vision for the town of 1,700.

He wants to improve financial reporting, upgrade software, update the town code, modernize the water and sewer system and more. Above all, with new a new county technology park just outside the town and new people and businesses headed Chapin’s way, Mayor Wilson, who took office in January, wants to position the town for increased economic development. But he wants the growth to be orderly.

“We need to be able to manage our borders in a more deliberate fashion instead of just letting it happen in sprawl,” he said.

During our roughly two-hour conversation recently, Mr. Wilson came across as likable, smart and committed to being a productive mayor. I once characterized him as a bull in a china shop when writing about decisions he has made that have led to a power struggle with a majority on Chapin’s Town Council.

No communication

Mr. Wilson insists he’s doing things within his authority as a strong mayor. But some council members argue that he is making unilateral decisions and overstepping his authority.

I left Town Hall impressed with much of what I had heard and wondering why things have been so turbulent for a mayor who has only been on the job since January. The brouhaha has produced much drama, including lawsuits and, now, a looming referendum in which voters will be asked to strip the mayor of much of his power.

And that’s what this is about: power. Both sides admit that much, although they point the finger at the other as the cause for the rift.

For his part, Mayor Wilson said that he has been trying to communicate with council members ever since he was elected. He said he has reached out by email and telephone, only too be rebuffed by some. “They’ve been communicated with on every issue,” he said.

Meanwhile, a majority of the council has opposed everything he has proposed, he said. “They have not communicated as to what their real objection is to me.”

Two council members communicated their concerns to me: Bibi Atkins and Kay Hollis said it’s the mayor who hasn’t been communicating. Both characterized phone calls and emails they have received from Mr. Wilson, along with his style, as “harassing” and “bullying” and “badgering.”

“I refuse to go behind closed doors with him without legal counsel and without a mediator any more,” Councilwoman Atkins said. “It’s very sad to think that I don’t believe anything he says. It breaks my heart.”

“All we’ve asked for is openness,” said Ms. Atkins, who has been on the council since 1999. “Quite frankly, we don’t know what’s going on in the town right now. We haven’t had a financial statement since March.”

Ms. Hollis said the mayor isn’t a team player. “He will not let us put anything on the agenda.”

“I’ll work with him,” she said. “He won’t let me.”

A gulf on the council

Mr. Wilson had some very pointed criticism of Ms. Atkins, Ms. Hollis and Robbie Frick, the three longest-tenured council members and the three who regularly oppose him: They don”t understand how the city operates, have little knowledge of Chapin’s finances, don’t know town ordinances, don’t know the duties of the mayor.

“They are not a part of this town. They don’t ask about the operations,” he said. “I’m reaching out to them. They’re jut not responding.”

“They have not laid out a vision for what they want for this town,” the mayor said.

One example of the gulf is how the two sides view the hiring of Karen Owens as economic development and communications director.

“We did not ever approve the hiring. We voted for the position,” Ms. Atkins said, adding the council never received a job description or list of candidates.

The mayor says that the council in fact did approve the hiring. He said he shared a grid on candidates but got no response from the council. “So then I hired her.”

Mr. Wilson uses the skirmish over the Owens hiring to justify the manner in which he scrutinizes council members’ requests to add items to the agenda. He said that after approving the hiring, members tried to rescind it in a subsequent meeting. They also began making agenda requests aimed at determining whether he had authority to make changes after he had been on the job for two and a half months, he said.

“It was apparent they were putting items on the agenda that made our town look bad,” he said.

The mayor said he has “no problem with putting items on the agenda” as long as the intent is to promote the well being of the town and its citizens.

“It’s about power. It’s about perceived power,” he said. “Everything starts with do I have the power to make the changes.”

Last fall, Mr. Wilson upset former mayor Stan Shealy, who had served for 32 years and was trusted and beloved. Mr. Shealy operated very differently than Mr. Wilson. Council members said Mr. Shealy always kept them in the loop. Mr. Wilson just acts.

Chapin is a nice, small town that pretty much has kept to itself and taken care of its own. It hasn’t reached out a lot.

Could the resistance to Mr. Wilson be about wanting to retain that small town feel, rather than positioning the town to reach out and grab growth, as Mr. Wilson wants to do? Is this the old guard resisting progress?

“I’m not saying change is bad,” Ms. Atkins said. “It’s the how.”

I think a lot of what the mayor wants to do is good. The problem is he hadn't excelled on “the how.”

I asked him if there was anything he could have done differently. He sat and thought for 20 seconds or so with no response. It wasn’t until we moved on to something else that he finally said the one thing he’d do differently is tell his side of the story sooner.

He never said communicate better. He never said take things more slowly. He never said work harder to build relationships and consensus. He never said anything that even suggested he had any fault in this divide. And that in itself could be problematic.

In as much as the buck stops with the mayor, state law does say that “He shall be responsible to the council for the administration of all city affairs placed in his charge.” That word “responsible” shouldn’t be taken lightly.

That said, the mayor is empowered to act. And he should, in the best interest of the town. He was elected based on the vision he expressed during the campaign. Council members have to accept that and be willing to compromise and develop a respectful relationship.

‘Worst year of my life’

My discussions with the mayor and council members didn’t turn up any hopeful signs of unity anytime soon.

Mayor Wilson’s critics have collected enough signatures to force a referendum aimed at reducing his power; they say that will lead to a resolution.

“He’ll be equal to us. He will not have more power than us except to preside at the meetings,” Ms. Hollis said.

Mayor Wilson said, “If the people or the voters choose to change the form of government, I will support it. … It just changes the process to achieve the vision.”

But with the acrimony on this council, a change of government likely won’t solve the problems. I’ve never seen such bitter division on the local level, although West Columbia’s council is making a bid to be just as divisive.

“I’m tired of this mess. I want this over,” Ms. Hollis said. “This has been the worst year of my life.”

And likely one of the worst years in Chapin’s history. Bottom line: Right now, there’s not a lot of good news coming out of Chapin.

Reach Mr. Bolton

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

About Warren Bolton

Warren Bolton

@BoltonWarren

Associate Editor Warren Bolton is a Columbia native who writes mostly about local government and politics, but also delves into social, civic and moral issues. He began his career in 1986 as a reporter with the Columbia Record, and has been employed with The State Media Company for 26 years. More

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