A disagreement among council members and the mayor is nothing new in Port Wentworth.
But the Mayor says this time this small town fight could be affecting a big business deal.
“The reason they are doing this is they don’t want us to fill the seats that are vacant,” said Mayor Gary Norton.
“They” are Councilmen Thomas Barbee and Mark Stephens.
Neither has shown up at two Council meetings this month. Last month both walked out of the meeting before any business could get finished.
“I just wish they would deal in good faith,” said Mayor Norton. “We took an oath of office and they are not fulfilling their oath of office if they don’t come to council meetings.”
There are two open council seats right now. Sheri Dyal moved to Effingham County in December, Mayor Pro-tem Debbie Johnson unexpectedly passed away in January.
That means the once four-person voting “block” is no more.
Without Barbee and Stephens, there is no quorum and no ability to get city business done.
“The business of the city has stopped,” said Mayor Norton.
Mayor Gary Norton says he is taking resumes for the open positions, but neither Barbee nor Stephens has offered a candidate or wants to vote. That’s because the Mayor could hold the deciding vote and it could swing the balance of power on the council.
“We are trying to be above board and do the right thing for the City,” said the Mayor. “We want people to know that everyone who wants the position or lives in the District please come forward.”
That’s even though it’s the same process that put Mark Stephens in office.
“When Mark was appointed and voted on, we showed up to Council, we didn’t stay home, we didn’t raise a big fuss. So I don’t know what’s going on now,” said Norton.
Norton says the stalemate means some workers haven’t gotten paid for two months. Workers from companies who have done the work for the city and are awaiting payment.
“It’s not a little bit of money,” said the Mayor. “They have people they need to pay too. So it’s not just paying them. they have people working for them that need to get paid too.”
In addition, there is a big company that wants to bring 400-1100 jobs to the city.
But without a meeting, the permits the company needs can’t get approved and their facility can’t get up and running.
“Are you afraid this company is going to back out if you keep going?”
“Well, I am right now because it has been so long. they are still trying to get approval for their building. they have cleared the ground but they don’t have approval from the city so they can’t move forward, so I hope they don’t pull out,” said Norton.
In an interview with News 3 earlier this week, Mark Stephens did bring up the possibility this battle could be related to race.
“I am not one to wanna point at race, but there are some instances where I can’t ignore it either,” said Stephens.
The Mayor says that race doesn’t play into this, it’s all political.
“I can assure you its not that,” said Norton. “All I’m trying to do is what’s right for the citizens of this town. it doesn’t matter if you are black or white. I’m still your Mayor, I’m still going to support you and try to do the right things for this city.”
There have been issues with the hiring of City Administrator Steve Davis. Some Council members and the Mayor believe he was hired after a possible “illegal” meeting. Davis’ actions were also in question have he fired Public Safety Administrator Matt Libby in Davis’s first month on the job.
In an email to council and the Mayor, Stephens has asked for a retreat to “discuss ALL the issues we clearly have been divided over.” Norton says Barbee and Stephens have said they would show up to a meeting if no hirings or firings would take place.
“If he (Mayor Norton) is acting on the entire Council’s behalf he should be willing to listen to everybody, not just listen to his friends, which he is apparently trying to do.”
Norton said he would be happy to sit down and talk after a meeting is held and the city business is done.
“If they don’t want to come to council because we will appoint someone to that position, I’m sorry,” says Norton. “That’s what the charter says we do. We did it for Mark. Why should we not do it for anyone else who wants this seat.”
Local legislators and the Governor’s office have been contacted for advice and to possibly help resolve this stalemate. The Mayor says he would much rather deal with the issues of the City within the Council chambers.
“Please come back to the council meetings,” said Norton. “Let’s get this thing going on the road. We aren’t helping anyone.”