Some may question whether the new town of James Island was formed to replace the horribly vague moniker of “unincorporated Charleston County,” but residents have fought time and time and time again to incorporate for fear of being assimilated into the city of Charleston.
After incorporating for a third time in June, 12 of these suburban pioneers will be campaigning this week for what they hope to be the last vote James Islanders will have to make to form a governing body for the perpetually threatened town. Voters will head to the polls on Tues., Aug. 29, to select a mayor and four council members to begin putting the new town together.
Four candidates will vie for mayor, including the undeterred leader of the most recent incorporations to build the town and “Stupid Mike”; and eight people will compete for the four town council seats, several with names James Island residents have seen on the ballot before.
All of the candidates say they’re prepared to beat back any legal attempt by Charleston Mayor Joe Riley to invalidate the incorporation. But Mary Clark, the town’s former mayor (or “mayor in exile”), claims her resolve is unmatched in the race for mayor.
“If he (Riley) says it would be okay, I might not have run,” she says. “I’ll serve until there is no threat the town can be taken away.”
Henry Horres Jr. says he is running to provide residents an alternative.
“Just as they had a choice to incorporate, I felt there should be a choice about mayor,” he says.
The town should open with a variety of services, Horres says, with operations led by a qualified town administrator.
“A town needs some professional direction from day-to-day,” he says, also noting that facilities should be improved. “We should have a real town hall, not a storefront in a strip mall.”
Clark says the last attempt to incorporate was hamstringed by court requirements for limited services and a concern that facilities would be gobbled up by the city if the town lost its incorporation battle. The footing this time around is stronger and Clark says she’s ready to hire staff and improve services.
“Instead of hitting the ground running, we’ll be flying,” she says.
Brett “Skibo” Johnson says the town should limit spending on staff early on to see just how much money the new municipality will have to live on. Instead, the town should contract out county services to limit costs.
“We’ve got to watch every dollar we spend,” he says.
The candidates feel that development should be more restrictive than the county’s standard of four homes per acre, but Horres says the town should be careful about added restrictions.
“People have to have some right to use their property,” he says.
The one most likely to get lost on the crowded ballot is Mike Fili, also known as “Stupid Mike” on 96.1 FM The Wave. But he’s the only candidate who can offer weekly fireside chats on the radio to address resident concerns.
“I’m going to try to be the voice of you,” he told a group of residents at a candidate forum last week, in a voice made for radio.
For those who may look lightly at the latest attempt to incorporate James Island, considering the inevitable court battle looming, Clark says there’s more at stake than a town seal.
“If we lose this fight, America loses.”
The eight candidates for the four town council seats have a variety of backgrounds, with ages ranging from the 30s to the 70s with time on the island from nine years to more than 40. But they all have the same concerns — no taxes, less development, and improved roads.
All oppose town taxes to pay for services, looking to state aid and local sales tax collections to help fund the town.
“You don’t have to have a lot of money to pay the people who will run the government,” says Jim Fralix Jr., a government retiree with a masters in public administration.
But real estate agent Eric Draper warns that the money coffers aren’t endless.
“People are going to want to do all sorts of things at once,” he says. “With that kind of budget, we’re going to have to be really careful.”
Bill Wilder, a previous council member under the last incorporation, says taxes shouldn’t just remain low, they should be less.
“Let’s hold the taxes down and give some back to residents,” he says, suggesting rebates from the local sales tax collections.
Development also is a concern for all the candidates who support increasing restrictions.
Ed Swicegood, a technical director for a local computer company, says the flood of cookie-cutter houses has to stop.
“We just don’t want houses jammed in together,” he says.
James Balliet, a self-employed plumber, says one of his main concerns is recreation opportunities for his children.
“These children need a place to go,” he says.
The candidates also agreed that working with other municipalities and coordinating disaster preparedness will be key.
Leonard Blank, a former planning commissioner for the last James Island incorporation, says disaster could threaten the town on day one.
“As soon as we form a town, we’re going to stand on our own right here in the middle of hurricane season,” he says.
Paris Williams served on the council twice before and says he’s returning to the ballot to complete several road and sewer projects.
“There’s unfinished business,” he says.
Joe Qualey, also a former council member, says land use standards will be an early priority along with road improvements.
“There’s no orange barrels on James Island right now,” he says. “This council needs to get on its horse and chase down funding.”
Whether the council members are heading into the sunset or, guns blazing, into battle with Riley, residents can pick the riders from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. on Tues., Aug. 29, at the fire stations on Folly Road, Harbor View Road, Camp Road, and Plymouth Avenue. Specific voting locations for your district can be found on your voter registration card.