UNION — Does the City of Union need a new form of government?
That’s the question facing the residents of Union who will have the opportunity to answer it when the polls in the city open at 7 a.m. Tuesday, Jan. 9.
The city is holding a referendum that day presenting the voters of Union with the following yes or no question:
Shall the municipality of Union change its form of government from the mayor-council form to the council form?
That question is being put to the voters because Union City Council voted in 2017 to hold the referendum this year let voters decide whether Union should retain its current form of government (mayor-council) or change it (council).
Why? Why did city council decide to hold the referendum? Do the members of city council think the city needs a new form of government? If so, why?
Those are the questions The Union Times put to the members of council, and these are their answers.
District 5 Councilmember Pam Sloss was one of the five council members who voted to approve both first and second readings of the ordinance authorizing the referendum. Sloss said she feels that, as the elected representatives of the people of Union, the members of council should have a greater say in the operations of the departments of city government and the issues affecting them. She said she feels the council form of government will provide that.
“I just think the council form of government gives the people’s representatives more of a voice when it comes to city departments and the issues involving those departments,” Sloss said.
District 4 Councilman Ricky Harris, who also voted both times to approve the ordinance authorizing the referendum, pointed out that Union has previously had the council form of government. Harris pointed out that under the council form the mayor would continue to perform his traditional duties under the direction of council, something he said has happened before.
“Under the council form, the mayor will still perform the administrative duties as directed by council and serve in a traditional capacity,” Harris said. The mayor’s position will act and vote as a member of council but will not have additional legislative power above what council has. Other municipalities the size of Union operate under this form of government — we previously operated this way.”
District 2 Councilman Robert Garner also voted in favor of both readings of the ordinance and said he feels the council form of government is more representative and encourages greater accountability in government.
“I never was a proponent of the change when it was changed to the strong mayor form,” Garner said. “I feel the Council Form gives our citizens better representation and holds the people they elect more accountable for doing the job.”
District 1 Councilman Tommy Anthony also voted both times to approve the ordinance authorizing the referendum. Anthony said he supports changing the city’s form of government to council form because it will enable city council to better look out for the city and its residents.
“I think we need a new form of government because council has got to look out for the city and this will help us do it,” Anthony said. “The majority of the cities in the state our size have the council form of government and in Union the council form of government seems to work better.
“In the next three years we could have changes in key positions in the city with a $45 million budget,” he said. “We need to have the correct people in place to protect our city and our citizens as we have many opportunities to grow in the future.”
Anthony added that effectively overseeing city government and its budget and personnel needs is what city council members like himself are elected to do.
“I think we need to make sure we protect the city and who better to do that than the people elected by the people,” Anthony said. “As a council member I just want to do what is best for our citizens and the city.”
District 3 Councilmember Vicki Morgan also voted both times to approve the ordinance authorizing the referendum and said she did so because she and a majority of the rest of the council members feel the city needs to go back to the council form of government.
“That was what the city had for many years and it worked,” Morgan said.
Morgan said she feels the council form of government will enable the city to progress even when changes of leadership occur.
“The mayor had mentioned that he was not going to run for reelection and that made me personally realize someone could be elected mayor with no knowledge of and no experience with the operation of the city,” Morgan said. “Our city would hit a large stop sign if that happened.
“Over the next few years our city has some great opportunities to grow,” she said. “We need to make sure we have a good form of government with council working together with teams and partnerships to make the city grow.”
The vote on the first reading of the ordinance was 5-2 with District 6 Councilmember Sonja Craig and Mayor Harold Thompson casting the dissenting votes. In that first vote, Craig and Thompson said they opposed it because it didn’t give voters the option of selecting the third form of municipal government allowed under South Carolina law, the council-manager system. Both, however, subsequently joined with the majority in voting to approve second and final reading of the ordinance.
Craig said that her votes reflect the fact that she, along with the rest of council, feels changing the form of government to the council form will enable the mayor to concentrate on promoting economic development in the city.
“We all felt we needed a change of government because the mayor will be able to do more for the city,” Craig said. “He could go out and bring more industry and business into the city because he wouldn’t have to worry about the day-to-day running of the city. We’d have an administrator who would be in charge of the day-to-day operations of the city. For years we had an administrator and a mayor and the city ran very well.”
Craig said that freed up from overseeing the day-to-day operations of city government, the mayor could focus on building up the local economy through the recruitment of new business, especially to the downtown area.
“We are trying to build up our downtown,” Craig said. “With the mayor no longer having to focus on the day-to-day operations of the city he could devote himself to bringing business into the downtown.”
Thompson, however, said that while he is in favor of letting the people of Union decide what form of government they want he is not necessarily in favor of changing it to the Council Form. He does, however, favor hiring a manager to oversee the day-to-day operations of the city and implementing policies set by council.
“I think all of us agree it is time to hire a city manager,” Thompson said. “If we do, however, we need to give him the powers to do the job. With a manager, council sets the agenda and gives the manager the full authority to carry it out.”
Thompson pointed out that even under the current Strong Mayor form he has always worked to keep council informed about the operations of city government and the decisions he’s made to facilitate those operations. However, Thompson said that given that the proper functioning of city government often requires him to make decisions on an immediate basis he is not always able to convene a formal meeting of city council before doing so.
“Even with the Strong Mayor form I’ve always tried to keep council informed,” Thompson said. “When there is a situation that need immediate attention, I am not, however, able to always call a council meeting to deal with it.”
Thompson said this would be the case even with the Council Form if a city manager is hired to oversee the day-to-day operations of the city.
“Even with the Council Form, if you have a manager you have to give him the authority to do his job without always calling a meeting,” Thompson said.
While he doesn’t have a problem with city council getting more involved, Thompson said the Council Form would mean a lot more work for the council members. He also said that city employees have also expressed concerns about “having to have seven or eight bosses” to answer to as they go about their jobs.
Despite these caveats and concerns, however, Thompson said he is happy to let the people of Union decide the issue and will do everything he can to carry out their decision.
“If the citizens vote for the Council Form I’ll do what I can to make it work,” Thompson said. “If they choose the Strong Mayor I’ll keep doing what I’m doing.”
Polls will be open Tuesday, Jan. 9 from 7 a.m.-7 p.m. at all city precincts. Those precincts and their locations are:
• Ward 1 Box 1 — Foster Park Elementary School
• Ward 1 Box 2 — Truluck Gym
• Ward 2 — Bus Maintenance Department
• Ward 3 — Union Housing Authority Office
• Ward 4 Box 1 — Union County Courthouse
• Ward 4 Box 2 — Union County Recreation Department
• Excelsior — Masonic Lodge
• East Buffalo — Buffalo Elementary School
All registered voters in the Ward 1 Box 1, Ward 1 Box 2, Ward 2, Ward 3, Ward 4 Box 1, and Ward 4 Box 2 precincts are eligible to vote in the referendum.
The Excelsior and East Buffalo precincts, however, are split, with only part of them located within the city’s municipal boundaries. Only the registered voters of those precincts who live within the municipal boundaries of the City of Union may vote in the referendum.
For more information about the Tuesday, Jan. 9 referendum contact the City of Union Municipal Clerk’s Office at 864-429-1701.
Charles Warner can be reached at 864-762-4090.