For the first time in a decade, Beaufort County Council has a new chairman.
The 11-member board on Wednesday elected Councilman Paul Sommerville as its leader for the next two years. He succeeds Weston Newton, who joined the S.C. House last month after nearly 13 years on council and the last 10 as chairman.
Sommerville, a Lady's Island Republican first elected in 2006, said he'll seek consensus on the GOP-controlled board.
"I can tell you what my idea of leadership isn't: It isn't to tell everyone what their opinion should be, and it isn't to tell anyone that they're wrong. It is to make certain every point of view has the opportunity to be heard," said Sommerville, 67.
Council elected Hilton Head Island Republican Stu Rodman vice chairman during Wednesday's meeting, which also included swearing-in ceremonies for newly elected Councilwoman Cynthia Bensch, as well as for three sitting councilmen and Coroner Ed Allen, all of whom ran unopposed in November.
Bensch, a Republican, will represent a Bluffton-area district that includes Rose Hill and the Buckwalter area. She won the only contested County Council race on the Nov. 6 ballot, defeating petition candidate Dan Duryea by a wide margin.
Also sworn in Wednesday were Councilman William McBride, a St. Helena Democrat; Councilman Gerald Dawson, a Seabrook Democrat; and Brian Flewelling, a Beaufort-area Republican. All will serve four-year terms.
After the 2011 redistricting, this council is the first with a majority of seats in growing southern Beaufort County.
McBride, who has served on council for 32 years, has said in the past that the shift won't have a significant impact on how the board functions. Likewise, he said, having a chairman from "north of the Broad" likely wouldn't make much of a difference, either.
"I think Weston was pretty fair although he was from 'south of the Broad,' and I don't think that will change. Most issues County Council deals with are not regional issues," McBride said. "I think we are a little more cohesive than most people might think."
McBride said he and Sommerville, whose districts are adjacent to one another, have worked well together over the years.
"I don't have any reason to doubt that he would do an outstanding job as chairman," McBride said. "I am looking forward to working with him."
The new council is composed of three Democrats and seven Republicans -- although the GOP ranks likely will grow after a special election to fill Newton's seat, which includes Old Town Bluffton, Daufuskie Island and neighborhoods in the New Riverside area. Two Republicans and no Democrats are running for the seat. The winner of the Jan. 29 GOP primary also will win the seat if no petition or write-in candidates emerge by early February, said Scott Marshall, executive director of the Beaufort County Board of Elections and Registration.
As chairman, Sommerville will work with county administrators to set meeting agendas and preside over council meetings. Vice Chairman Rodman will assist with agendas and lead meetings when Sommerville is away.
Sommerville, who served as vice chairman under Newton, learned plenty observing the former chairman.
"He was a gifted leader and a gifted consensus builder, and I certainly have tried to emulate him wherever I could," Sommerville said. "I don't pretend to be able to fill his shoes, but I am the elected chairman, and I will certainly do the best I can."