New Council Members Shake Pillars of Power

Blythewood’s new Town Council, Bob Massa, Roger Hovis, Mayor J. Michael Ross, Tom Utroska and Bob Mangone, sat for their first meeting Monday night.

BLYTHEWOOD – Just minutes after three new Town Council members took the oath of office and were seated Monday evening, it was apparent that a new balance of power had been elected. The three, Bob Massa, Tom Utroska and Bob Mangone, brought two agenda items to deferral until they could be looked into further.

The first item was the second reading of Ordinance 2013.16, which would have authorized a 10-year lease of the Depot Restaurant that the Town government has pledged to construct and lease to Jon Bazinet, owner of Sam Kendall’s restaurant in Camden. The Town is loaning itself more than $800,000 to construct the building that it will own once the loan is paid back. Bazinet plans to rent the building from the Town. The rental income will be used to help pay the loan back to the Town.

First reading of the ordinance was passed unanimously by the previous Council last month. That agreement included a guaranty of lease payments from both Bazinet (for five years) and his family’s corporation, Red Fox Development, Inc. (for the full 10 years). But newly seated Councilman Mangone questioned the guaranty.

“I believe we need a performance bond to protect the Town from some unforeseen problem in the future,” Mangone said. “There are too many issues beyond everyone’s control to allow this to just be on his signature. Ten years is a long time, and a lot of things can happen.”

Mayor J. Michael Ross, who voted to pass first reading, said he and Town Administrator John Perry had been trying to find a surety bond since the new councilmen had brought the subject up earlier this week. Perry said he contacted suretybond.com and they did not have a surety instrument to cover rental payment. Mangone suggested that it is Bazinet’s responsibility to provide a performance bond to protect the Town against the almost $1 million loan.

Councilman Utroska agreed, saying, “I’m concerned. I would like us to take another week to see if there isn’t a surety bond out there.” Utroska said that signing the ordinance was tantamount to gambling with the Town’s money. “This is a lot of money,” he said. “A week or 10-day delay won’t matter.”

Councilman Massa also agreed. “I don’t think we are going to find an instrument out there. (The Town) has set aside its own money, then locked it in so we can’t spend it on something else.”

When Utroska asked the Town’s attorney Jim Meggs what he would suggest they do, Meggs answered, “The financing for this was orchestrated by Parker Poe Law Firm. But until we get a briefing from Parker Poe, there are lawyers in my firm who will know the options available for Mr. Bazinet.” Meggs suggested the Council defer action on second reading until they could decide what to do about the surety bond, and the Council voted unanimously to do so.

The next item of business didn’t fare much better with the new Council members. The agenda called for the appointment of Jim McLean to the Board of Architectural Review and Joseph Richardson and Raymond Fantone to the Board of Zoning Appeals. The three seats had been filled by the three councilmen and had been vacated earlier that evening when they were sworn into office. Utroska noted that, because of the time frame, the appointments would not be made in accordance with the Town’s statute for either of the two boards.

The Statute (155.465 [G] for the Board of Zoning Appeals and 155.495 [E] for the Board of Architectural Review) states: If a vacancy occurs, the Town will advertise for candidates to fill the vacant seat in the manner in division (D) of this section. Town Council may make an appointment to a vacant seat at any Council meeting held not sooner than 30 days after the advertisement appears in the local newspaper.

Trying to explain to the Council that the appointments would be acceptable if made that evening, Perry said, “In April or May of 2013, the Town put an ad in the newspaper and these are the people who responded to that and they have been patiently waiting to serve and all three of the new Council members served on these Boards and created those vacancies.”

As the Mayor then prepared to call for a vote on the three proposed appointees, Utroska again questioned how that procedure met the requirement of the ordinance. Perry responded that, “we did do that (advertise) on an annual basis to give a buildup of candidates and we will do that again.”

However, this procedure has not previously been made known by the Town Council or Town Hall at a public meeting or in the newspaper.

“I’m a big believer in following the rules,” Utroska said.

“We don’t want to do anything that’s wrong,” Ross said, “but we advertised this (last spring) and did not get a response.”

When asked his opinion, Meggs said he would have to look at the chronology (of what has been done in the past).

Massa said the statute is predicated on an existing vacancy, of which, he said, there were none when the advertisement was posted last April or May.

“Maybe that is why no one applied,” he said, “because there was no vacancy. Who would go to the trouble to apply if there is no vacancy?”

“So,” Ross, said to the Council, “are we okay to make these appointments tonight?”

Massa said he would vote ‘no,’ “because we are not following our ordinance. We can’t selectively decide whether we want to follow the ordinance.”

Massa also suggested that in the past, those seeking appointments were expected to appear before Council in case Council members had questions to ask them. It was noted later in the meeting that only one of the three, Jim McLean, was present.

The Mayor made one more try, telling Council, “These three people said they were interested in the position and when the vacancies came open we called them and they agreed to take the positions.” Again, Ross asked Meggs if he had further comment. Meggs didn’t. Then Ross said, “We called these people and were assured by Mr. Perry that we are following what he believes to be the (right thing).”

Getting no support from Council, Ross hesitated, then called for the motion, which was to defer action on the item. The vote was unanimous.

In other business, Council voted to defer action on the Landscape and Tree Preservation Ordinance and voted unanimously to pass a Resolution for the South Carolina Municipal Insurance Trust (SCMIT) Worker’s Compensation Participation Agreement.

The next regular meeting is Monday, Dec. 16, but there was some discussion that a special meeting might be called for the several deferred motions.