Congratulations, James Island. You fought a grueling legal battle to become your own town. Then you lost that independence, won it again, lost it, won it, lost it, and won it a fourth time. And now that Charleston Mayor Joseph P. Riley Jr. has said the city won't challenge the incorporation, it looks like James Island IV is going to stick.
So now you've got to pick your leaders. Former Mayor Bill Woolsey is running unopposed for the position, but when it comes to the new Town Council, you've got seven candidates running for four at-large seats. The first term will only last two years, and subsequent terms will last four years. The election will take place July 31. Here are your candidates:
Berry, who teaches in the theater department at the College of Charleston, has lived on James Island since 2001. When she bought a house on Harbor View Road, she found herself immediately involved in the world of local politics.
Like many James Islanders, she opposed a plan to widen the road. She believed that widening it would encourage commercial development and contribute to the decline of James Island's residential character. While she was involved with the issue, James Island became a town in its third incarnation.
"We were working with the town, and then the town went away," Berry says. "And then the town now has come back." She says that while the town can do nothing to stop high-density development on parts of the island that have been annexed by the City of Charleston, Town Council can use zoning to protect historic neighborhoods within town limits.
Berry says that an important task for Town Council will be to get people involved with and interested in local government again. "There's a lot of frustration because of the history," she says, referring to the transitory nature of the Town of James Island in its previous forms. Now that it looks like the town is here to stay, she says the council needs to look at ideas like putting together a constituent e-mail update and setting up neighborhood liaisons to gauge public concerns.
"I've done a lot of vocalizing in front of councils — town and county — and I know what it's like not to be listened to, and I know what it's like when they do listen to you," Berry says. "If anybody is speaking in front of Town Council and I happen to be on Town Council, if I'm not listening, then shame on me."
Blank is the closest thing to an incumbent in the race for the brand-new council, having served two-and-a-half terms by the time James Island Version 3.0 was dissolved. He retired in 1994 from a job as a service group superintendent at the Charleston Navy Yard, and he has spent the last 13 years volunteering with the Sea Island Habitat for Humanity, where he is on the board of directors. He lives in Clark's Point and has been on the island for 47 years.
Under the town's second incorporation, Blank was the chairman of the planning commission, where he opposed both the extension of I-526 onto the island and the planned improvements on Harbor View Road. He says that reassembling the planning department will have to be one of the council's first orders of business.
If elected, he will push for the town to re-adopt the land use ordinances he previously helped write, which were meant to keep construction density low. Because everyone on James Island used to need a well and a septic tank, many of the older house lots on the island are a full half-acre, he explains. And whereas the county allows four to six housing units per acre, James Island's rules used to only allow three. By keeping down density and avoiding hotel construction, he says the town can keep traffic from getting out of control.
Aside from the planning department, Blank says the town will need to reinstate a board of zoning appeals, a neighborhood safety program, and a crime watch.
A lifelong resident of the Centerville neighborhood who has worked for 18 years as a paralegal, Clifford has never run for office, but she is a member of several civic-minded organizations: the American Legion Auxiliary, the Veterans of Foreign Wars Auxiliary, Sea Island Republican Women, the Sea Island Community Choir, and a classic-rock cover band called Midlyfe Crisis. As a vocalist covering everything from Boston to Led Zeppelin to Pat Benatar, she has performed for charities including the Wounded Warrior Project and a Charleston Nine memorial fund.
Clifford says she values the mom-and-pop shops on James Island and would work to keep major corporate businesses off the island. "James Island is not the place for big business," she says, adding that the town has rural roots.
She says James Island's re-incorporation means that government can be more sensitive to the needs of the people it serves: "Whenever you have a city or something that's so large, a lot of times the needs of individual citizens get overlooked or not even addressed. With a smaller-knit community, you have a chance to be heard on matters so you don't get caught in the bureaucratic mess."
As a council member, Clifford says she would start holding mini-town halls at Kronic Coffee in an attempt to get people engaged in their local government. She remembers one town election when the mayor and all four council members ran unopposed, and she doesn't want that to happen again. "People just weren't paying attention then," she says.
Engelman, a 33-year resident of James Island and former substitute teacher, previously served on the District 3 Constituent School Board and the Charleston County School District Board of Trustees. She lives in Lee Jackson Estates, and she loves what she calls the "Mayberry" feel of the town.
While Engelman says zoning and planning are the town's core duties, she also has ideas to help people in need. She would like to see the town start an organization to assist its senior citizens, from building wheelchair ramps to delivering food. She also wants to start a school supply drive akin to Charleston's First Day Festival, where residents can donate bookbags, uniforms, and other basic school necessities. "We've got to take care of our own," she says.
Engelman is also interested in forming a volunteer corps to clean up problem areas, including street corners that are so overgrown with grass that she has a hard time seeing where she's turning at intersections. She says the town can't always wait on the county or state to trim back the weeds, and she calls for a 100-person volunteer force to "literally, once a month, start attacking these street corners that are overgrown and you can't see past the stop sign ... I want us to start taking pride in our town."
Engelman also says that Town Council will need to give county police more focus and direction when it comes to combating what she calls a drug problem on the island.
At 25 years old, Sam Kernodle is a good deal younger than the other candidates, but he says he is ready for the responsibility of elected office — beacause he's been a father since age 17.
"It made you grow up real quick, that's for sure," Kernodle says. "I wouldn't change it for the world because it made me, I think, a better person. It's a big responsibility, and when you have a little boy counting on you, you can't mess around." He graduated from the College of Charleston with a degree in business administration, and now he's working at the law firm of his father, Trent N. Kernodle, and living in the Clearview neighborhood. He has lived on the island since he was three months old.
Kernodle sees his youth as an asset. During a candidate forum hosted by the League of Women Voters, Kernodle says, "a lot of other candidates said that they wanted to get the youth involved. I wanted to raise my hand and be like, 'Here's your chance. Get me involved.'" He says many of his peers who never left the island are using drugs and getting into trouble, and he would like to build a community center on James Island for at-risk youth. He also wants to see the town build its own boat landing.
When it comes to development, Kernodle says, "I don't want to make it bigger. I want to make it nicer." On the topic of Harbor View Road, Kernodle says he wants to extend sidewalk and bicycle paths along it from Fort Johnson Road to Folly Road while leaving as many trees standing as possible.
As the marketing director for Island Life magazine, Mullinax writes a monthly column on politics, and for the past several months, his topic has been the once-again-nascent Town of James Island.
"I think that it's good for the people of James Island to have self-determination finally," he says. "That's how we are in the United States."
A Charleston native who has lived in the Stone Post neighborhood for the last five years, Mullinax has spent much of his career working in politics. He was a constituent service representative for military and veteran affairs under former U.S. Sen. Paul Coverdell (R-Ga.), and before that he worked for Rep. Floyd Spence (R-S.C.) in Columbia.
Realistically, he says the first jobs of Town Council will be to form planning and zoning boards, and then they will have to pass a budget. After that, he says the town will be able to take on tasks like ensuring the maintenance of dirt roads on James Island, some of which form suspension-wrecking potholes after heavy rainstorms. Charleston County has nearly 300 dirt roads, and many of them are on the island, he says.
Mullinax opposes the plan to extend I-526 with an exit ramp on James Island. He says it would only encourage the construction of strip malls and contribute to traffic woes on the island.
One unique proposal of Mullinax's is for council members and the mayor to be held to a 10-year term limit. "I feel that when people stay in office for a very long time, they become less responsive or more entrenched," he says.
Womack earned a degree in history at Erskine College, but she found work as a cardiac catheter technician. When she married a James Island native and moved there in 1985, she had an appreciation for the island's history.
"The people who started the town, a lot of their descendants are still here," Womack says, noting that the island was once home to an agrarian community that only ventured into Charleston to sell its surplus. Nowadays, she says, "It's clean, it's small, and it's got a warm, fuzzy feeling to it."
Womack is quick to admit she has no experience in politics, but she says she would bring a "common-sense view" to the council. She is all for preserving the island's grand oak trees, but when branches start to rot, the town needs to know about it, she says. On council, she says she would work with the Department of Transportation's tree specialists and possibly push for hiring a town arborist.
She is not a fan of bringing so-called big-box stores onto the island, nor does she want more multifamily dwellings. "We have too many houses for sale, and they're not that expensive," she says.
For safety's sake, Womack says the island needs sidewalks so that children do not have to bike and skate in the road.
One thing all of the candidates agree on: There's no need to form a James Island Police Department. All of the candidates said that the Charleston County Sheriff's Office has proven itself capable of protecting James Island so far. When asked about the possibility of a JIPD, Mary Beth Berry said much the same thing as her opponents: "Oh, heavens no."---
CORRECTION: A previous version of this story stated that Mullinax wanted to pave the dirt roads on James Island. He actually wants to make sure they are maintained properly. We regret the error.