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Pine Ridge council member tries to abolish most town committees, mayor says others have no interest

Pine Ridge, SC (Paul Kirby) – Pine Ridge Councilmember Beth Spires Sturkie raised an issue that some said was originally intended to be brought up during a rather boisterous executive session in a special meeting in October. She suggested that all committees except for the finance committee be done away with. This would include the Public Safety Committee led and run by duly elected mayor and self-appointed Police Commissioner Robert Wells. He appointed himself to that position within five minutes of being sworn in, November 2017, a move that several predicted would happen as soon as he claimed the needed number of write-in votes to win the mayor’s seat.

Last month, that special called meeting was held by the town that had only the executive session on its agenda. What a government can speak about in executive session is limited to very little- like employee hiring, firing, discipline, compensation, and contractual matter. The meeting government body can invite others into these sessions and Pine Ridge, like may government entities, did and usually does take their attorney with them. That meeting got very loud at times and Town Administrator Vikki Miller had to knock on the door of the room where these are held to let the council know their “in secret” meeting was only secret if the crowd in attendance couldn’t hear raised voices. Since then, rumors have circulated that Sturkie had asked for the special session and tried to make the move to make significant changes in the committee structure. She was advised by the town’s attorney that didn’t fit the scope of what could be done out of the public’s eye, so it would violate the Freedom of Information Act. In testament to her tenacious spirit, Sturkie requested the item then be added to this month’s open council meeting calendar.

Sources tell us that the heart of the matter is what some perceive as the mayor’s micro-managing of the town’s police department. In a two-week span in the spring, the police chief was separated from the department while out on workman’s compensation. One patrolman was fired, and the interim police chief was demoted and suspended. He quit at the end of the suspension. At that point, the department was mothballed until they could find a new leader and some help.

Later, they hired a new chief with a master’s degree and lots of experience. The community loved him and lauded him with praises. He hired a very experienced SC State Trooper as his second in command, hired a full-time patrolman, and used additional certified part-time help to fill in high call volume times. A few months later, the new chief and the lieutenant resigned and in his letter of resignation, the chief had a scalding rebuke of the mayor’s day-to-day meddling in the department. Having an uncertified, untrained civilian meddling in anything other than the approval of things like budgets can be extremely disruptive to a department and can even jeopardize cases according to an expert police consultant we spoke with. Since Wells took over as mayor last November, five certified officers have left or been fired, and they have gone from a full-time to a part-time police chief. Although the current chief has the experience, personality, relationships and work ethic to become the chief on a permanent basis, he holds another position with the National Guard that he hasn’t left because he’s short of retirement there. There may also be other personal reservations as well, but we haven’t pried into those.

Last night when Sturkie brought the item regarding the committees up, no other member made a motion and the mayor, who runs the meetings, quickly moved on to the next agenda item. Sturkie asked if they weren’t even going to talk about the issue and Wells told her that nobody wanted to talk about that.

It remains to be seen if this is the last the town and its residents will hear about this. Over the summer and into the fall, several citizens have taken advantage of the time set aside each session for public comments to implore the council to work on leadership skills and solve any problems they might have among themselves. Problems within the group haven’t been at the forefront of any debate and were quiet, if they existed at all, until the October special and Tuesday night’s meeting. Whether this is the beginning of the deterioration of a carefully crafted façade of harmony within the council remains to be seen.

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Call Paul Kirby

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