Two years ago, no one was willing to challenge Mary Clark or the entire James Island Town Council. How things have changed. On Aug. 3, the small, resilient community will head to the polls to pick from 10 council candidates and five candidates for mayor.
Incumbent Mayor Clark has made her pitch for a final term. She wants to continue business as usual, balancing public service needs with a personal passion to preserve the island's treasures, like her controversial bid for McLeod Plantation. Asked why she didn't participate in a recent debate, Clark told the City Paper that everyone knew where she stood on the issues.
If there is one thing that her opponents are against, it's more of the same.
Challengers include Jonathan Brown, a vice president of a software engineering firm; restaurateur Brett "Skibo" Johnson; realtor J. Warren Sloane; and economics professor Bill Woolsey.
The candidates argue the town has struggled recently with high-profile infighting and Clark's lingering animosity for the county and the City of Charleston.
"We can't work with the City of Charleston because they are out to destroy us," Clark said at a debate last week.
Woolsey says the dispute with the city will likely be over in the next two years following a state Supreme Court decision. When the town wins, the city is going to have to change its approach, but so will the town.
"We can't run a town on anger and resentment," he says.
Johnson, who ran against Clark in 2006, says he's running on the same platform: combating what he sees as hidden agendas and a lack of transparency.
"I believe in better communication for the citizens, employees, and vendors," he says.
He's not alone. Sloane notes his own difficulty in getting the town's financial records. "We need the information available to everyone," he says.
All of the candidates are quick to praise Clark for her service to the town, but they note that the needs of the community have evolved from the need for an advocate to the need for an administrator.
"There was a time when we needed grassroots leadership," Brown says. "But now it's time for professional leadership to take us to the next level."
For Brown, that includes reforms to the bidding process for town contracts, making sure there are enough bids to determine what is a good deal and to weigh what the town is getting for its money. Too often, he says, bids are awarded without that information.
"If you don't get three bids, it's your fault," he says, noting he'd go back and redraw and readvertise the request to make sure it was as competitive as possible.
Sloane suggests the town should consolidate bids, like putting several small road projects together to entice more businesses.
The town's next mayor will also have to struggle with budget challenges in a down economy, with revenues down from sales taxes and business license collections.
Several candidates are hopeful they can find the necessary savings by trimming some costs. Johnson, Sloane, and Woolsey often talk about small government or low taxes.
"My concern is the overhead in running the town," says Woolsey, regarding the salaries, rent, and office expenses that eat up most of the budget before getting to priorities like cleaning ditches and maintaining roadways.
Sloane says he'd review every position and each employee's responsibilities to see where savings can be found in eliminating or consolidating positions.
"Let's make sure we're spending our money wisely," he says. "We've never run a tight ship. We've got to eat beans and rice before we go to residents and ask for more money."
Johnson says he would target some of the money Clark has directed toward the upcoming Civil War Sesquicentennial, including a documentary on the island's early role in the confrontation.
"We're not in the movie-making business," Johnson says.
Brown hopes to address the bleak budget picture by putting more of the local option sales tax revenues toward city needs, instead of sending it back to individual residents in small checks as part of a rebate. If the town continues to send that money back to taxpayers, Brown worries that residents are going to start receiving a bill along with their check.
The candidates would also approach traffic problems differently. Like Clark, the field of challengers seem largely skeptical of proposed improvements to Harbor View Road.
"It's a $14 million solution, and I don't know if that is going to fix the problem," says Sloane.
But they're all hopeful that they can offer suggestions to improve the plan as opposed to the town's current strategy to stall the project in the courts. Sloane says it's endemic of the current administration's approach to a lot of town matters.
"We're always screaming, 'No!'" he says. "We're just standing in the way instead of offering alternatives."
Johnson, Sloane, and Woolsey are each taking a similar approach to the extension of Interstate 526, which would send the highway over Johns Island to connect with the tail end of the James Island Connector. To them, the project is inevitable, and they'd rather find concessions than fight over an alternative.
Johnson says it's important to get to the negotiating table on issues like Harbor View and I-526.
"It will happen with or without us," he says. "We're better off being a part of it."
Woolsey notes some town residents are anxiously anticipating the new route.
"I've talked with many people who are interested in easier access to the north area," Woolsey says.
Brown, who commutes to his office near the airport, is ironically not one of those people. He suggests the 526 extension is going to clog up what has been a prize for James Islanders heading onto the peninsula.
"That's our exclusive red carpet to downtown," he says. "They want to make it the West Ashley connector, the North Charleston connector, the Beaufort connector."
Brown also advocates for improved safety measures. He wants to build bike paths between communities to address safety concerns on busy roads and provide the connectivity he remembers as a boy.
"Now there are privacy fences down the paths that would have connected neighborhoods," he says. "I want to take right-of-ways and connect the neighborhoods again."
Woolsey wants to foster and improve neighborhood organizations as a way to address safety concerns as a community, as well as making sure residents are helping one another during emergencies, like hurricane evacuations.
The candidates have an uphill battle against Clark; a crowded field in an election without a runoff puts the incumbent at an advantage. But the challengers are hopeful considering the strong number of residents who have come out for candidate forums.
The League of Women Voters has additional information on some candidates, as well as a list of polling places and a sample ballot.
Our July 21 cover story on Mary Clark.