Apathy nearly derailed Beaufort City Council election

With less than a week before the filing deadline for two Beaufort City Council seats, incumbent Donnie Beer had the only hat in the ring.

Then, in the days before the filing period ended in August, Kimberlee Kolton, who has never before run for political office, decided to run. Beaufort County Black Chamber of Commerce CEO Larry Holman filed on the last day. And Mike Sutton, an incumbent having doubts about another term because he is caring for an ailing father, made the deadline by just hours.

So why such little initial interest in the council election?

Some attribute it to political apathy. Others theorize Beaufort's system of government -- four council members and a mayor, all elected at-large and without term limits -- discourage residents from launching a citywide effort to oust longtime, well-known politicians.

"Look at the makeup of council for the past couple of years," Holman said. "Pretty much all of them live with a mile or two of each other."

Holman wants the city to move from an at-large system to district representation, in which each council member is elected by residents within a geographically defined area.

District representation would help diversify the council, more fairly represent areas that have traditionally been underrepresented, such as the Northwest Quadrant and Old Commons, and make council members accountable to a specific set of residents, according to Holman.

The idea, however, doesn't sit well with incumbent council members or challenger Kolton.

Kolton, Beer and Sutton said such a change would risk dividing council's focus from an overall vision for the city to one of narrow political districts.

Kolton, a retired social worker and nurse, is sympathetic to Holman's concerns that blacks have been underrepresented, in part because of the at-large system, she said.

But Sutton, a building contractor, refuted that notion.

"Why can't people support term limits rather than take a step backward and divide us racially with districts?" Sutton asked. "People who want to serve need to show up at the meetings, be a part of the solutions. You can't come from the sidelines whining and crying and then expect that because of the color of your skin you're going to get elected."

Sutton has pushed for term limits since he joined council four years ago and said if he wins a second term, he won't run again for his council seat in 2014.

Kolton and Holman agree limiting members' council service would benefit voters.

"I think it's very hard to stay fresh, up-to-date and innovative about things over a lengthy period of time," said Kolton.

Beer, an event planner who has served 19 years on council, is the only candidate who said she doesn't support term limits.

"The people who elect you set the terms," Beer said. "If they don't like you, they'll vote you out."

Mayor Billy Keyserling, who is not up for re-election this year, said voters enforce their own term limits when they vote.

An incumbent like Beer has more name recognition, but she also has 19 years of votes and public decisions that others can pick apart and attempt to use against her, Keyserling said.

"I'm not for or against them, but I think it's a cop-out," Keyserling said of term limits. "How many laws can you make to protect the public? The public should be informed and should take the time to vote."

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