Weak Mayor?

Beaufort, SC Mayor Billy Keyserling

08 Feb Weak Mayor?

What does a part-time “weak” Mayor do that keeps him busy all the time?

Those who know me and understand my passion for the job might be surprised that my position is classified in state law as a “weak mayor.” Let me explain:

State Law

State law provides three organizational options for municipal government: the Mayor-Council, the Council and the Council Manager.

145 of the 270 Municipalities in SC are organized under the Mayor Council format, whereby the Mayor is classified as a “Strong Mayor” because he or she chairs the Council and also serves as the Chief Executive. That said, most of the Mayor Council municipalities are very small towns whose tax base does not support a professional manager. The exception is Charleston where the Mayor both manages the city and presides over council.

93 of the 270 municipalities are organized under the Council form, whereby the Council appoints a chief administrative officer whose powers are limited solely to those specifically delegated and prescribed by the Council.

32 of the 270 municipalities are organized under the Council Manager form, whereby the Mayor and Council members are forbidden by law from interfering with the operations of departments, offices and agencies that are under the direction of the City Manager. Council can have no direct involvement in hiring or firing employees or directly giving orders to employees. Under this form, the Council serves as a legislative body determining municipal polities, hires and fires the city manager and appoints the municipal attorney and judge.

Beaufort

The City of Beaufort is organized as a Council Manager government in which the Mayor has no powers beyond that of being a member of City Council though, by tradition, he or she presides at meetings. Furthermore, the mayor may exercise informal authority as leader and spokesman for the Council. The City Manager, who serves at the pleasure of Council, serves as the Chief Executive Officer and the head of administration. He or she hires and fires staff, prepares the required balanced annual budget and regular financial reports to Council, and performs other duties as prescribed by law. The City Manager is the implementer.

Under this scenario, and not realized by many, being Mayor of Beaufort requires little more of me than attending two meetings each month. So why do I work full time?

Most obviously, it is my choice and I love it.

I allocate my time as follows. About 20%  is spent serving as Mayor chairing two meetings and three work sessions each month, serving as a member of the Redevelopment Commission, representing the city at functions and welcoming visitors to the city.

The remaining 80% of my time is spent on activities I “can and want to do because I am Mayor.”

There are several reasons I do this.

First and foremost, while the city’s population is only 13,000 people, there are over 60,000 who think of Beaufort as their home and look to me as their Mayor. This means answering telephone calls and emails from city residents and those who surround us as they are also important customers of the city. Accordingly, if they ask a question, express an opinion or request help, the best rules of customer service (as required of all city employees) dictate that I invest whatever time it takes to be responsive. Even though they cannot vote me out of office and I cannot raise (or lower) their taxes, I spend up to three hours each day responding to calls and emails.

Second, I believe an informed citizenry is an important component of an honest, transparent and engaged government. Since, to my regret, few people normally attend City Council meetings, I invest about a day each week preparing a newsletter. There I explain city issues and concerns, the status of pending or on-going city initiatives and do the best I can to promote cultural and non-profit activities and events. Anyone is invited to receive the newsletter and can easily unsubscribe if they choose. I also tape two television segments that run throughout each month on WHHI – TV and post the shows for review in the newsletter and on YouTube.

I also visit every school that invites me to speak to students and participate in community meetings in and around the city. We need to enlist citizens’ ideas and support as we achieve the delicate balance of growing our hometown the right way.

I invest a lot personal time working on issues that may not necessarily belong on the city agenda, but which are important to sustaining and growing a strong hometown. These issues include, but are not limited to:

– Helping other Mayors and businesses along the SC coast in the fight to oppose off-shore testing and drilling for oil and gas. Beaufort was the first city to pass a resolution in opposition and now every coastal community in SC, and many in VA, NC, GA and FL have followed.

– Organizing a fundraising campaign that created more than fifty partial scholarships for students attending the Art Program at USCB’s Historic Campus.

– Organizing and being an active participant in a citizen task force to better understand the risks of rising sea levels and to eventually make recommendations to the City Council. Due to our early initiative and the reputation we have gained among State and Federal agencies, Beaufort has been selected as one of four cities (one in SC, GA, NC and FL) to receive outside support for our initiative.

– Organizing and financially supporting the Young Leaders of Beaufort program that engages 36 seventh and eighth graders who, along with teachers from the nine schools they represent, meet monthly to learn about civic engagement, community responsibility and leadership.

– Attending as many neighborhood association meetings as possible and the monthly Neighborhood Improvement Committee as a means of staying in touch with community issues while seeking to hear suggestions from those who attend.

– Organizing and chairing, along with Bonnie Hargrove, director of USCB’s Center for the Arts, the 2016 SC State Humanities Festival which will be hosted in Beaufort in June.

– Working with the SC Arts Commission and local organizations to achieve the status of a “SC Cultural District” to foster the arts and humanities. I am delighted to hear that the Arts Council of Beaufort County will soon be moving downtown; I’m sure they will become an active player in this enterprise.

– Serve on the Boards of Directors of the Municipal Association of SC and the SC Humanities Council.

– Meet on an irregular basis with other Beaufort County mayors on common issues and concerns. One of our collaborations is to launch a county wide cultural tourism initiative through which all of our organizations can cross-market their assets and provide a richer experience for residents and visitors.

– As one of nine members of the City Redevelopment Commission, I work with the chairs of each of the five areas of interest, when necessary, to help in their initiatives. My specific responsibility, along with RDC Chairman Jon Verity is trying to make the Boundary Street Redevelopment project run as smoothly as possible while also encouraging property owners to make improvements to their properties allowing larger and taller structures, inter-connectivity and collaboration.

– Worked with the YMCA to establish a boating safety program for school children and in some cases their parents. By the way, the program that runs at least eight weeks spring though fall can always use additional volunteers.

– Attend every possible non-profit organization’s fundraisers to demonstrate personal and city support for what they do for the community.

– Initiated the National Endowment for the Humanities $200,000 grant for USCB to host the Teachers’ Institute on the Reconstruction Era last summer. This led to preparing an application for a planning grant for a Reconstruction Hub in Beaufort that will direct scholars, students and visitors to Penn Center and the 101 other identified historical sites from the period. Hopefully the grant will be awarded this spring.

– Working with the National Park Service to get additional dedicated historic sites in and around Beaufort.

The list of official and unofficial activities goes on and on. Let’s just say I love doing what I can and engaging with others to make Beaufort the best we can be.

Yes, I am a strong “weak” mayor. Thanks for the honor you have given me.