After Repeated Violations, Council Aims to Change the Law

BLYTHEWOOD – Town Council unanimously adopted an ordinance Monday night to amend provisions of the Town’s Code of Laws pertaining to how applicants are recruited for the Town’s boards and commissions. The issue arose last month when Mayor J. Michael Ross brought forward the nomination of three applicants for appointment to the Board of Architectural Review and the Board of Zoning Appeals without following the Town’s statute that requires the posting of notices of vacancies on the boards and commissions at least 30 days prior to appointment so that members of the public can have notice of the vacancies in case they want to apply. This was the fourth time the Ross administration, with no public objections from Town Attorney Jim Meggs, proposed these appointments without posting a notice and without providing the required 30-day time period for residents to apply.

In pushing back against criticism for this, the Mayor has told The Voice in each instance that he felt in his heart he was doing the right thing and that he felt that was more important than following the law.

When Council asked Meggs’ opinion on the matter at last week’s meeting, Meggs said he would have to look at the chronology of what had come before. Even though the item had been on the agenda at that meeting and was in direct conflict with the Town’s written statute, as pointed out by two of the Council members, Meggs said he was not prepared to address the issue. The issue was then deferred until Meggs could review the Town’s statute. But, before the Council to defer the matter, the Mayor and then Town Administrator John Perry argued that the Town had run an advertisement in the newspaper last April or May calling for applicants for board and commission vacancies, even though there were no vacancies at the time. Councilman Bob Massa noted that the statute was predicated on an existing vacancy, of which, he said, there were none when the advertisement was posted.

The Mayor presented a scenario in which “we did that (advertised for applicants for boards and commission) on an annual basis to give a buildup of candidates and we will do that again.” However, such a policy has never been presented publicly or mentioned verbally or in writing by anyone from the Town Hall and does not comply with the Town’s statutes 155.465 (G) and 155.495 (E), which state that, “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.”

On Monday evening, Council unanimously passed a new statute that would allow the Town to forego those requirements and, instead, advertise semi-annually for board and commission vacancies instead of when the vacancies occur. If second reading of the new ordinance passes next month, the Town will advertise for applicants sometime in July and sometime in January, but Council would not specify any particular time during those two months.

Meggs suggested that the intent was to simplify the process.

In other business, Councilman Tom Utroska offered an agenda item calling for a two-year term limit for the Mayor and Town Council members. Councilman Bob Mangone offered an amendment to also restrict candidates from re-running until three and a half years after having reached their term limits. Mangone’s motion died for lack of a second. Mayor Ross said he felt funny about term limits.

“Term limits say we aren’t trusting the people to vote on who they want to be in office,” Ross said.

Utroska countered that “When people have been in office too long, they can sometimes use their bully pulpit so that it’s hard for people to run against them.”

No one in Blythewood has served a third term as Mayor or on Town Council since the Ballow administration ended in 2004. The only two incumbents who have been reelected to a second term since 2004 ran unopposed.

Utroska said that since the S.C. Attorney General had previously rendered an opinion that the state ordinance neither provided for nor prohibited for term limits, he would be happy to take the issue to the people at a special election.

“Let the people speak,” Utroska said, “in an advisory referendum on the issue.”

The Mayor said he would be meeting with Howard Jackson of the Richland County Election Commission about the possibility of an advisory referendum being held in conjunction with the special election next spring to replace Councilman Roger Hovis whose resignation was final Dec. 15. The Council voted 3-1, with Utroska dissenting, to defer the vote until after the Mayor meets with Jackson.

In other business, Massa, in opening remarks, commented on his first three weeks in office being very unusual.

“We had to deal with two or three issues that we hadn’t anticipated, but we’re all working together. One of those issues,” Massa said, “is the Doko Restaurant agreement. We’ve had a couple of meetings and executive sessions about the restaurant contract and one of the things that has become quite clear is that the Town has not performed any, or if they did it was very cursory, due diligence. As a Council, we have now assembled a list of questions that we will present to Mr. Bazinet after the first of the year.”

The three new Council members delayed the vote on the second reading of the restaurant agreement to look into, among other things, whether they could get a performance bond to protect the Town from some unforeseen problem in the future.

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