A column I wrote in August about Chapin’s broken government elicited emails and calls from town residents and supporters objecting to the headline — “Can anything good come out of Chapin?”
While my focus was on the dysfunction surrounding the town’s government, some Chapin residents and others took it personally. They wanted to set me straight.
One mom emailed that her daughters and their families have forged great lives and been successful in business in the town of 1,700. “Both daughters have wonderful husbands and beautiful children and they love living in Chapin. … The fight among the city council members and the mayor has NOTHING to do with the good people and good works coming out of Chapin.”
I returned a call from another woman who promptly placed three young boys on the line, who — one after another — told me about the schools, the people and other positive attributes of Chapin.
They’re right. Chapin is a nice town with some good folks living there. But that was my point: All year long, this great little town has had its name sullied and seen its government become inept because its elected leaders can’t get their act together.
And while some might hope that Tuesday’s vote to determine what form of government the town should have will resolve the power struggle between Mayor Skip Wilson and a majority of council members, that’s a bit of good news that won’t likely be coming out of Chapin.
It’s going to take far more than a change in the form of government — or a vote to keep the current system — to mend the bitter divide that has developed between Mayor Wilson and council members Bibi Atkins, Kay Hollis and Robbie Frick.
Frankly, it’s a slap in the face to voters that the people they elected — to work together in the spirit of compromise and unity to deliver quality services, manage the town’s budget and shape the future of Chapin — have failed so miserably. To make matters worse, voters are being forced to go to the polls to consider a drastic change in the way the town’s government operates under the pretense that it will somehow end the feud. It won’t.
Which is why Chapin voters should soundly reject the attempt to end strong-mayor — a system that gives the mayor the authority to run day-to-day operations and make personnel decisions. I happen to believe that strong mayor is the most accountable, efficient way to run municipal government. But making such a critical decision to ditch it — or even to switch to it — without thoughtful, deliberate dialogue and communitywide input is dangerous.
Instead of granting a change in the form of government, Chapin voters and residents should demand that Mayor Wilson and council members do what they were elected to do, whether they ever like one another or not: Set aside their differences and make wise, reasonable decisions in the interest of the town and its people.
Given the animus between the mayor and council members, that won’t be easy. But that’s exactly what they all signed up for when they asked voters to elect them.
And as the elected leader of the town, Mayor Wilson should lead the way. As I’ve noted previously, Mayor Wilson has some good ideas about modernizing city government and boosting economic development. But good ideas don’t mean much when the chosen leader is a poor communicator who is viewed as a bully.
While a strong mayor runs day-to-day operations, he can’t successfully govern without the aid of town council, which provides a check on the elected executive, sets the budget and helps oversee other key elements of government. Mr. Wilson wrongly decided that his 18-vote victory over former Mayor Stan Shealy, who had served for 32 years, amounted to a mandate for everything — and anything? — he wanted to do.
First of all, such a slim victory is hardly a mandate. What the result likely meant is that a majority of voters liked Mr. Wilson’s vision and hoped he could do a good job of moving the town forward. He needs to reach out to council members so they can start doing that.
But it’s not Mayor Wilson’s fault alone. Council members Atkins, Hollis and Frick must do the same. They must accept that there’s a new mayor in town. Stan Shealy served very well and had a great working relationship with the council, but his style was very different from Mr. Wilson’s. The council members must accept that change has come and must be open to new ideas.
More importantly, the mayor and council members must be willing to go back and hit the reset button. They got off to a horrible start, which has haunted Mr. Wilson’s tenure since he took office in January. For the town’s sake, these elected leaders must conjure up enough forgiveness and courage to move past their differences if they have any intent to propel Chapin toward a better future.
I think it’s safe to say that if residents don’t like headlines that they believe somehow belittle their town, they sure don’t want folks whose job it is to build the town up involved in bitter disputes that tear Chapin apart and create unwanted headlines.
And for their part, just as some of them called and emailed me, residents must engage their town officials and hold their feet to the fire. Remind them of the many good things that have and do come out of Chapin, and demand that accountability and civility in government be among those things the town is known for.
Reach Mr. Bolton
at (803) 771-8631 or firstname.lastname@example.org.