Elections

As Bluffton grows, should town council membership grow with it?

Bluffton municipal election candidates. TOP ROW, left to right: Cynthia Bensch and Mayor Lisa Sulka for mayor; and Oliver Brown, Brendan Downey and Ted Huffman for council. BOTTOM ROW: Harry Lutz, Eleanor McKinsey-Chandler, Jim Sims, Michael Spears and Dan Wood, all for council.
Bluffton municipal election candidates. TOP ROW, left to right: Cynthia Bensch and Mayor Lisa Sulka for mayor; and Oliver Brown, Brendan Downey and Ted Huffman for council. BOTTOM ROW: Harry Lutz, Eleanor McKinsey-Chandler, Jim Sims, Michael Spears and Dan Wood, all for council. Submitted and file photos

The town of Bluffton has grown both in size and population in recent years, but one thing has remained the same: the number of members on the Town Council.

Current town officials and candidates running for office have recently begun speaking out in support of expanding the council from five members to seven.

"I think its natural that as the population grows, (the council) will expand," councilman Ted Huffman, who is running for re-election this year, said last week.

Bluffton's population in 2010 was 13,353, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

North Myrtle Beach, Clemson and Orangeburg, which have populations between 13,500 and 14,000, all have seven-member councils, according to Municipal Association of South Carolina data.

In fact, there are a handful of towns in the state with smaller populations than Bluffton's that have councils with more than five members.

Council candidate Dan Wood said a larger governing body could help the council get more done.

"The workload is tremendous for this body of council members," he said. "We just need more collective thought, more brainpower."

There are some in Bluffton who believe expanding the council will help provide better representation to the growing population.

The five-member council "doesn't give us a broad spectrum of opinions," council candidate Michael Spears said. "As the population grows we definitely need to add more voices."

University of South Carolina professor Dennis Lambries specializes in local government issues.

He said while there is "no perfect system government and no perfect size," expanding a town's governing body can "increase the voice of the people."

But expansion can come at a price, Lambries said.

"The more people you have (on a council), the tougher it can be to get things done. That's especially true if council members have competing agendas and struggle to work together."

State law sets up a process by which municipalities can change their government structure.

If a simple majority of the council votes in favor of the idea, or if 15 percent of registered voters sign a petition, the issue will go to a referendum.

If more than half of the voters in the referendum favor the idea, the council can be expanded.

If Bluffton's council were to eventually expand, the issue of splitting the town into wards would likely arise.

Currently all council members serve at-large, meaning they represent the entire town and not a specific district or ward

Mayor Lisa Sulka, also up for re-election this year, said in certain circumstances she could support an council expansion. But she is not in favor of splitting the town into wards.

"I think we should all serve everyone," she said.

Lambries said there are pros and cons to a ward system.

On the positive side, wards ensure that all geographic areas of a town are represented.

But council members who focus their energies on their particular ward rather than the whole town "can become very myopic when it comes to their decision making," he said.

The election

The election for Bluffton's mayor and Town Council is Nov. 3.

Mayor Lisa Sulka is running for re-election against current Beaufort County Councilwoman Cynthia Bensch.

Eight candidates are running for two seats on the council. They are incumbent Ted Huffman, Oliver Brown, Jim Sims, Brendan Downey, Dan Wood, Michael Spears, Eleanor McKinsey-Chandler and Harry Lutz.

Follow reporter Lucas High at twitter.com/IPBG_Lucas.

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