Even a ‘Weak’ Mayor Can Wield a Lot of Power

October 8, 2013

Inside Insight

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swanseaThere are basically two kinds of local government structures: the “strong-council-weak-mayor” form, or the “strong-mayor-weak-council” form. Currently, citizens of Columbia, whose mayor wants more power, are wrestling with the question of moving from the one to the other.

Before you decide which side you’re on, consider Swansea.

The citizens of Swansea have a “weak-mayor-strong-council” form of government. A weak mayor’s duty is mainly to cast tie-breaking votes, to be a representative on councils and boards, and to relay information to the town about the council’s decisions. Yet in Swansea, the town’s weak mayor, Ray Spires, decides, implements and presents to the council and citizens of Swansea the results of his decisions often months after they’ve been made – and sometimes not at all.

But Mayor Spires is a happy “weak” mayor. He puts on firework shows, hot dog cookouts and parades; he throws out candy and has Christmas tree lighting ceremonies; and all the time he tells the citizens and council the financials are wrong the town and people are not really in debt millions of dollars. All the time the citizens keep paying and paying, hoping there is an end of the debt that keeps growing larger and larger while being smiled at by the “weak” Mayor Spires.

Recently Mayor Spires and the head of the Swansea Water Department, Rick Bryan, made a decision to enter into an intergovernmental water/sewer pact with the nearby town of North. Bryan reported in the July 15, 2013, town meeting that he had started working on the negotiations with North. He said he hoped to have papers for the council to review by the next council meeting in August. The town’s attorney, Leah Moody, asked the council to wait and let her review the paperwork before any negotiations start. Ms. Moody advised the council to postpone voting on an agreement and to go into executive session to discuss exactly what Mayor Spires had done without legal counsel. This was apparently the first time she had learned of any legal paperwork passing between the two towns, and she was not happy about it.

Skip ahead to Aug. 1 to a special meeting by the town of North’s mayor and council. After a short debate, the North council and mayor approved a few waivers in their water and sewer codes, and unanimously voted to enter into the intergovernmental agreement with Swansea. An excited Bryan described the pact as a great way to “share resources” and “save money” and characterized Swansea’s purchase of a new GPS mapping system as a money-saving, time-saving benefit for North, almost as if it were a token gift for signing the new pact. Bryan, now the new acting head of North’s water sewer system and the head of the Swansea Water- Sewer Department, announced he was headed back to Swansea to present the new joint intergovernmental pact at the Aug. 19 Swansea town meeting.

Now here’s the rub. The North-Swansea intergovernmental pact had been discussed and reviewed byNorth’s council and mayor long before they voted on it. But it would be a surprise to the citizens and council of Swansea. The Swansea council did not vote on an intergovernmental pact in August. In fact, the busy Bryan, acting and present head of two water-sewer departments, somehow failed to deliver the joint signed and sealed pact to anyone but Mayor Spires. He didn’t mention it to the Swansea council, at least not in the hearing of the public; nor did it make it into the minutes of the Aug. 19 meeting.

Which is strange, since there’s a good bit of money involved.

There is the $4,000-per-month payment to Swansea from North. Part of the $4,000 per month Swansea has to pay is for the salary and full benefits of a licensed wastewater operator, licensed water operator and licensed water-distribution operator. It is surely no coincidence that John “Rick” Bryan is licensed as all three (S.C. license 2504, 4801 and 1137). It’s easy to understand Bryan’s excitement: Because of the North-Swansea intergovernmental pact, his salary could climb closer to the $100,000 mark. Maybe even more: There’s also the contract with Bull Swamp Rural Water, and it’s over $23,000 a year now. Swansea will only pay half of the cost per hour even if the overtime is all in North.

When asked about the Intergovernmental pact, Swansea council members revealed they had never read it. Not one had read or even seen the pact before voting on it. They had it explained to them in executive session. The public isn’t allowed into executive sessions. After all, the public might have a question about the creative math of this contract. In executive session, the weak Mayor Spires and Bryan informed council members what a good deal this was and don’t worry, Swansea was going to benefit from this North-Swansea pact, etc., etc.

After returning to the Sept. 16 meeting, the “strong” council voted unanimously, sight unseen, to pass the “North-Swansea Intergovernmental Agreement (on the) Operation of Water and Wastewater System.” When questioned about different parts of the pact, council members’ comments ran along the lines of “That wasn’t what was explained to me,” and “No one said that in the meeting.”

The citizens of Swansea should ask several questions of their council members. One question to ask is: What have the employees of the Swansea Water Department been paid to do up to now if they can work in North and cover Swansea in a 40-hour week? Should it matter to the citizens of Swansea? The last time the Swansea mayor negotiated a contract, the citizens of Swansea ended up having to pay back almost $6 million because the deal really wasn’t a $3 million grant, as they were told it was; it was a loan for a new water-sewer line. The mayor explained that grant to the council, too, and again the council read no paperwork.

These, then, are the things that a “weak” mayor can get away with. Citizens of Columbia and other towns and cities ought to think long and hard before creating a “strong” one.

Alberta Wasden is a Citizen Reporter for The Nerve.