City Council candidates debate at USCB

in Lolita Huckaby/News by

By Lolita Huckaby

Six candidates, two seats. Some have gotta go.

The Beaufort Regional Chamber of Commerce and the USCB Center for the Arts provided a forum Wednesday night for the six candidates running for the two open seats on the Beaufort City Council and the $4,800 salary that goes with it.

Of the six, only one is an incumbent, local realtor Mike McFee, who is seeking his fourth term on the council. The other five offer a background of experiences but all, based on the replies to questions posed at the forum, share a love for the community and concern about its future.

In addition to McFee, who lives in the Pigeon Point area, candidates include retired interior designer Mary Harvey, who lives in the Northwest Quadrant, as does Scott Gibbs, a retired employee from the S.C. Department of Social Services.

Retired downtown business owner Neil Lipsitz lives in Mossy Oaks, as does public school educator Brantley Wilson.  Mitch Mitchell, U.S. Air Force Major General, ret.  lives in The Islands of Beaufort.

Each candidate is running at-large, the city council does not have districts. All seats represent the city at-large, a factor that the local NAACP has protested in years past.

Mitchell pointed out the Council has not had an African-American in 27 years, when former Councilmember Fred Washington Jr. retired. This year, two African-American candidates, Miitchell and Gibbs, are on the ballot.

Harvey is the only female on the ballot, and incumbent Councilmember Nan Sutton, the only female on council currently, is not seeking re-election.

All candidates agreed city investment in tourism promotion is a good idea. All agreed the council needs to work with economic development officials to promote employment diversity in the area.

“Although tourism is an industry, we need to have more things like art and opportunities presented by our Digital Corrider,” said Harvey.

All agreed to an extension of the Spanish Moss Trail across Ribaut Road into the downtown area, although the question did not specify where that crossing would occur, which has been a major sticking point for the current city. Only Harvey said she did not support the crossing because all the proposed crossing plans show the extension running through residential areas.

When asked if they had problems with 41 percent of the city’s budget going for salaries, none of the candidates expressed criticism.

“We just have to make sure we’re getting our money’s worth,” said Lipsitz.

When asked what issue currently detracts from the city’s quality of life, candidates listed the isolation and fear caused by the COVID quarantine.

“For me, personally, it’s being isolated and not able to go out into the community,” said Gibbs.

When questioned about council’s efforts in the area of affordable housing, McFee responded that the city, working with the county and groups like Habitat for Humanity, has a committee working on the problem. A housing study found the average cost of rental housing in the $500 range.

“If you could find somewhere to rent for $500, it would be a monumental task,” McFee said.

Wilson was the only candidate to bring up the local option sales tax as a way to bring more revenues into the city coffers.

“The sales tax would help share the costs of services we want to provide and help relieve the burden on the taxpayer,” Wilson said.

When the issue of stormwater flooding was raised, all candidates expressed support for the city’s ongoing project to improve drainage.

“It may be getting to the point where in certain areas we should not allow building at all,” said Mitchell.

If current City Councilman Stephen Murray wins the mayoral race, a special election to select his replacement will be held.

Watch Wednesday’s City Council and Mayoral debates here:

Above: City Council candidates Mike McFee (incumbent) and Mitch Mitchell at Wednesday’s debate