The power of Hilton Head Island Mayor David Bennett would be significantly weakened under an ordinance filed Wednesday by council member and mayoral candidate John McCann.
The ordinance proposes changes to various sections of town code, including the power to set agendas and to appoint committee chairs. If approved, the ordinance would also strip the mayor of his power to appoint council members to standing committees.
McCann denied the move was a politically motivated one.
“I was concerned about the process,” McCann said Wednesday. “Running for mayor, I’m going to abide by these same proposals. I’m doing this to streamline the process for this mayor and future mayors.”
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Bennett did not immediately respond to three phone calls seeking comment Wednesday.
McCann said the process of setting the agenda was “breaking down,” and the town is leaning toward a strong-mayor form of government rather than the current council-manager form. He said if his proposal is approved, agendas for meetings would be available for town staff and the public “faster than they are now.”
“I support anything that makes the process work better,” McCann said. “I’d like to have a good discussion (with Town Council) on this.”
Council members Marc Grant and Bill Harkins declined comment until they had seen the proposed changes.
Council member Tom Lennox said he had not seen the filed ordinance, but thinks the powers mentioned are best reserved for Town Council.
Council member David Ames said he wanted to speak with McCann about his reasons for filing the ordinance before commenting. Council member Kim Likins did not immediately return a call seeking comment.
Here’s how other areas of Town Code would change under McCann’s ordinance:
▪ The municipal clerk would prepare the Town Council agenda instead of the mayor. Under McCann’s plan, new business items could be placed on the agenda by a majority vote of committees, boards and commissions; if they are matters referred to council by the town manager; if they are ordinances proposed by members of council; or if they are matters approved by a majority vote of council.
▪ A majority of council members could call special meetings by written notice to the municipal clerk.
▪ A majority of council could add or remove agenda items after a meeting begins.
▪ Council, rather than the mayor, would decide whether to extend meetings that go later than 8 p.m.
▪ Council, rather than the mayor, could designate a chairman for each standing committee.
▪ Executive, or closed, agenda items must be “consistent with applicable state law,” and can include only matters approved by a majority vote of council or matters referred by the town manager.
Staff attorney Brian Hulbert said under the town’s council-manager form of government, the state legislature grants all power to the Town Council. Any powers of the mayor must be granted by Town Council, he said.
In 1983, when the town was incorporated, the mayor was given the power to set Town Council agendas. In 2008, the power to appoint council members to standing committees was also granted to the mayor, Hulbert said.
At Tuesday’s regular meeting of Town Council, McCann reported he would be delivering the proposal to the municipal clerk and asked that it be placed on the agenda of council’s next meeting, scheduled for Dec. 5. He did not discuss the proposed changes with the council.
The ordinance requires two readings before taking effect, according to Hulbert.
These proposed changes come after recent tension and split votes on Town Council concerning town manager Steve Riley.
Town Council had been meeting behind closed doors to discuss Riley’s future for more than a year, and spent more than $29,000 on a secretly-hired law firm to help with that process.
In September, McCann moved to have a discussion of Riley’s future in open session rather than behind closed doors, a move supported by Harkins, Grant and Lennox.
That discussion was postponed.
Two weeks later, Town Council unanimously agreed to support Riley during the first public discussion of the town manager.
At the same meeting, Bennett called for unity among Town Council members.