Mayor: Chapin headed in right direction despite its conflicts

Chapin Mayor Skip Wilson, right, discusses matters with town utilities director Andy Metts.
Chapin Mayor Skip Wilson, right, discusses matters with town utilities director Andy Metts. tflach@thestate.com

Chapin Town Hall is improving service, getting its finances in order and planning better for growth despite two years of “frustrating” infighting among town leaders, Mayor Skip Wilson says.

“We’re focusing on strengthening the services we have,” he said. “We need to get better at what we do.”

Those thoughts were expressed in a wide-ranging interview with the Lexington County community’s first new mayor in more than three decades, who came in with a promise to make major change.

Wilson, a 60-year-old financial adviser, is leaving his imprint on the town of 1,900 residents amid complaints he often is stubborn and dictatorial.

He’s using authority given predecessors to oversee the daily operation of Town Hall to the fullest, dismaying other town leaders who feel ignored and that he’s overstepping bounds.

From the start, Wilson’s style has been a source of conflict.

Eager to get started, he ruffled feathers by seeking to take office a few days sooner than standards allow.

He quickly clashed with former longtime Town Clerk Adrienne Thompson, eventually firing her for alleged financial irregularities and nepotism.

Wilson is unapologetic for that decision, even though his dismissal of the popular Thompson touched off a firestorm in Chapin.

“We needed to get our financial house in order,” he said. “What I found was not acceptable. We had a lack of internal control measures.”

Friction intensified after Wilson filed an ethics complaint that ended in a $750 fine for Thompson’s hiring of her son for three minor jobs at Town Hall with the permission of Wilson and his predecessor.

Thompson received $150,000 in the settlement of a defamation lawsuit filed against the mayor for his allegations of misuse of public money.

But Wilson won a legal challenge from three Town Council members to his authority to make many decisions single-handed on spending and staff. Those rulings are being appealed to higher courts.

And he narrowly triumphed at a referendum in November 2014 on a proposal that sought to reduce his authority significantly.

But he lost a bid to defeat Councilwoman Kay Hollis, one of his strongest critics, at town elections last fall.

Tensions are quieter today, marked mainly by disagreements over spending initiatives similar to those in other communities. But resentment about Wilson still simmers.

His repeated calls for an end to the power struggle failed after political foes said his idea of cooperation is getting his way.

“We were always attacked as challenging him in asking questions,” said former Councilwoman Bibi Atkins.

What Atkins calls Wilson’s abrasive style fueled her retirement this month after 16 years as a council member. “It was the thought of winning and having to deal with him,” she said.

The persistent backlash from those who disagree with him is “a big shock,” Wilson said. “Some of it stems from misunderstanding.”

Wilson isn’t the only Midlands mayor at odds with other community leaders, but discord in his quiet town has been unusual.

It’s finally time to let council members hire a replacement for Thompson, but on a part-time basis mainly to oversee records, Wilson said. Thompson’s former responsibilities for town finances and development standards are now assigned to Wilson hires.

He increased town staff from 12 to 22, mostly by creating a seven-member staff to oversee water and sewer service to replace a firm that did it.

That step is necessary partly to oversee a $12 million expansion that doubles sewage disposal capacity to handle expected growth, he said.

Wilson broke with tradition in doing away with a town attorney, calling in help as he deems necessary. That change reduced Town Hall’s bill for legal services from $34,220 in 2013 to $6,818 last year.

His top goal is keeping pace with steady growth. “We still have a lot of work to do,” he said, citing updates in development standards and expansion of utility service.

Town population could double within a decade as county leaders develop a local hub for technology firms and as subdivisions sprout nearby because of the appeal of Lake Murray and top-rated Lexington-Richland 5 schools, he said.

Neighborhoods won’t be be forced to come into town but will be annexed upon request, he said.

The power struggles taught Wilson to be patient, but he is undeterred in pushing his management vision. “You deal with it and move on,” he said, conceding he should have been more forceful at first in explaining himself.

He’s taken to social media to tell his side of the story. “We found you need to communicate in many avenues to tell what’s transpiring,” he said.

Wilson isn’t saying if he’s seek re-election in 2017 to the part-time post paying $14,000 yearly.

The job requires 30 hours of attention weekly, he said. His business office is two blocks away, making it easy to drop by to check on what’s happening at Town Hall.

For now, he intends to continue providing a businessman’s perspective on upgrading town services to ensure everything “is customer-focused,” he said.

Tim Flach: 803-771-8483

In hot water

Skip Wilson’s tenure as Chapin mayor began in controversy in early 2014. Major conflicts include:

▪  Seeking to take office a few days early, upsetting other town leaders who saw it as opportunistic.

▪  Firing veteran Town Clerk Adrienne Thompson.

▪  Turning back a legal challenge from three Town Council members to his authority to make many decisions alone on spending and staff.

▪  Winning a referendum on a proposal that sought to reduce his power significantly.