IRMO, S.C. (WIS) - Irmo voters will decide on a host of issues when they head to the polls next Tuesday, including who they want to see lead the town as mayor.
Incumbent Hardy King has served two terms as mayor and was first elected in 2011. He is facing two challengers -- councilman Barry Walker and political newcomer Mike Ward.
King points to the town’s parking ordinance and the restructuring of the town’s Okra Strut as recent steps that he said lead the town in the right direction. His decision to run for re-election came at a meeting sometime last year.
“We had some people in the audience who came to our podium and said we’re going to get rid of ya’ll, blah, blah blah, and I decided right then, if all you want to do is overturn everything we’ve done, I’m going to continue to serve,” said King.
Critics of the town’s council point to a lack of transparency at meetings and an alleged “my way or the highway” mentality from multiple council members. King said claims criticizing transparency are unfounded and stem from a “vocal minority.”
“We were the first municipality in South Carolina to put our checkbook online for the controller’s office, all of our ordinances are online, all our minutes are online, all of our meetings are online, they’re all live-streamed so I don’t know how you can get more transparent.”
For years, King said the annual Okra Strut operated in the red, claiming to sell more sponsorship than it actually did. For years, he said it would turn to the town council to help make up the difference. That stopped, King said, in 2015 after a few new council members were elected.
“We kind of took some people off the Okra Strut, had some new volunteers, we gave them a new set of rules and said, ‘Hey, we’ve got a majority up here now that’s not going to give you money. You need to start breaking even,’” King said. “Not only did they do that, but they started making $20,000 a year.”
Barry Walker, one of King’s challengers, has served on the town council for 15 years. He and King often clash at town council meetings, which have gotten argumentative at times. Walker said, if elected, he will reopen the dialogue between citizens and the council. It’s something he said King “oppresses.”
“Be able to talk to people, be able to approach people, that’s what is missing in our mayor now,” Walker said. “Our mayor does not allow us to have that conversation back and forth.”
Further, Walker said there’s a three-person majority on the council, making it nearly impossible to win on certain topics. With two council seats also up for grabs in this election, he hopes moving forward the council will function as a five-person council.
“I want five separate voices that have to work together, five people that are forced to work together to come up with the best solution for the town of Irmo,” he said.
Voters will also face three non-binding referendum questions on Tuesday’s ballot. One question asks voters if the town should overturn its parking ordinance, which was put in place in August 2018. It states it is illegal to park any vehicle anywhere in the front yard of a residence except in the driveway or a parking area approved by the zoning administrator.
King argues the vast majority of people previously in violation of the ordinance are now in compliance and, overall, it is raising property values within the town. Walker said the ordinance needs to be amended to make certain exceptions.
“We have to amend this ordinance to take into consideration handicap people, people with disabilities, take into consideration that if you have a funeral, if someone died at your house and you have a lot of people over temporarily, you shouldn’t have to call the Irmo Police Department to get permission to allow people to park on your grass,” said Walker.
Political newcomer Mike Ward, who has lived in Irmo for the past several years, said his motivation to throw his hat into the race came at a town council meeting.
“Throughout all the meetings, the debating, and arguing, I found our town really lacks a certain level of respect that we should really give each other,” Ward said. “In my time campaigning, I have found others agree with my frustration and that ‘my way or the highway’ mentality from different seats has actually divided our town.”
Ward said the parking ordinance needs re-written and if the council can’t agree to do so, then it should be repealed.
“We shouldn’t put ordinances into place, wait to see where it fails, and then go back and correct it. We should sit down and have those conversations before we make it law,” Ward said.
Another referendum question asks voters if the town should bring back a property tax in order to provide additional services. It cites road repairs, street sweeping, and the ability to hire more police officers and staff members.
All three candidates said no property tax should be implemented.
“We might have to bring back a tax, but that’s not the way this is being framed. They’re saying to provide ‘services,’ which is a bunch of bologna,” Walker said. “We can run the town the way it is right now by attracting more businesses to come back to Irmo.”
King said there aren’t too many other revenue streams available to the town out there but worries the town council wouldn’t be able to make a decision about how to spend the money even if it had it.
“It’s always been what are we going to do with the money and it’s always been that we need to think about it more. If you can’t decide today, what you want to do with $500,000? I don’t know that you’re going to do a better job deciding that once you have the $500,000,” King said. “I think, as a whole, the public wants to see what we are going to do with the money if we get it and, since we as a council can’t decide that, I’m kind of against having it.”
The final referendum question asks voters if they would approve of a hospitality tax to pay for more tourism-related events in town. Once again, all three candidates said they are not in favor of such a tax.
“We currently have a franchise fee that is charged to the citizens through the utility companies right now and that’s part of the town’s revenue so I think we can keep with that,” Ward said.
Walker wants to see additional hotels come to the area, which he said contributes greatly to the accommodation tax.
“If we don’t have a hospitality tax what we can do is go after grants, we can go after monies from accommodation tax, we can attract another hotel to build in Irmo,” he said. “The one hotel we have has paid over $40,000 in accommodation taxes.”
Polls open Tuesday morning.