We need a strong mayor system to manage regional growth

Last Call

marc janHilton Head Island and Bluffton started as small towns and the “weak mayor” system seemed sufficient. Since then, however, both have experienced major growth and a “strong mayor” system might serve us better.

There are challenges and advantages with each system. Let’s focus on the council-manager system in place across the Lowcountry. The biggest advantage is the lack of partisanship, which should not be undervalued. The professional town manager can make decisions without the political calculation of elected officials. But this benefit often comes at the cost of dynamic leadership with the “mayor effectively reduced…to the role of cheerleader and external promoter of his city’s image and interests.” It is hard to tell who is in charge when an unelected manager has more power than the elected mayor.

A fully paid mayor with executive powers could execute real long-term planning better than a rotating town council that has to agree via majority vote on all matters. In a strong mayor system, we the people become the shareholders, and we elect our CEO for the town. If he or she does a good job, we extend the contract through re-election. It is pure and proven. In our current system, we have a mayor who does not get fully paid, depends on town council and executes through the town manager, which is not as efficient. No major corporation or large notfor- profit organization is run like that.

marc jan2The most notable example of a strong mayor in our region is former Charleston Mayor Joe Riley who, during more than 40 years, was re-elected 10 times. He transformed a sleepy run-down port city into a world-class business, cultural and tourist hub. I do not think that Charleston would have the same linear and consistent re-development if they did not have a strong, elected and fully paid and engaged leader at the helm.

If our towns had visionary leadership with the ability to not only conceive but execute a plan, maybe we could make the most out of the opportunities that lie ahead of us. The two most pressing issues we face on Hilton Head are: Lack of affordable housing and the bridge bottleneck (see our stories from September 2017 on hiltonheadmonthly.com). For neither of these challenges is there a tangible solution in place. The list of missed opportunities are many and, depending on who you talk to, might include developing more of a high-end, three-season tourism industry instead of depending on timeshare and summer tourists, a conference and arts center, and better priorities for the town’s land acquisition program. The town has purchased 145 parcels of land totaling 1,308 acres for a total expenditure of $171.8 million.

For Bluffton, my personal wish list would have included keeping more of the rural esthetic by adopting some of the same building code as on the island and declaring the town center off limits for national chains— as Austin, Texas did so brilliantly.

As we look to the future, a coordinated plan for the entire corridor —which includes Hardeeville— should become a priority since the entire region will continue to burst out of its seeds. Our towns will need to collaborate more and more as the region grows and are best poised to do so if they have focused leadership in place.

You can’t make a Lowcountry boil without the right pot. And you can’t expect local governments to be responsive and strategic without the right tools either. Do Hilton Head and Bluffton have the right tools? It’s up to the citizens, our loyal readers, to decide. 

*This article was co-authored with Emily McLeod-Sulkes, who holds a master’s degree in International Relations from Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS) and currently works in strategic planning for Frey Media.

Editor’s note: This opinion piece is not meant as a critique on the persons holding office or working in government. It is a reflection on how certain government forms can have an influence on a town’s development.