City Council meeting erupts in discord

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Conflict arises after debate on HBF seat tabled

By MINDY LUCAS

In a dramatic and unexpected move at its most recent meeting, Beaufort’s City Council voted to table the issue of removing a local historic preservation group’s seat from the city’s review board causing one city councilman to walk out.

The vote to table the issue was held at the council’s Tuesday, Dec. 10 meeting, and comes just two weeks after members voted 3 to 2, on first reading, to pass a measure which would remove Historic Beaufort Foundation’s (HBF) seat on the city’s five-member Historic District Review Board.

HBF has held a designated seat on the board for nearly 50 years.

Councilman Mike McFee, who introduced the motion, told those in attendance that he and other council members had heard their concerns.

“We don’t disagree with a lot of the comments that you’re saying. We understand a lot where you’re coming from,” he said, before making the motion.

However, Councilman Stephen Murray, who voted against the removal of the seat at the last meeting, took issue with the tabling, saying the move was improper since many in the public had turned out for the meeting expecting to be heard.

Despite Murray’s objections, the motion to table passed 3 to 2, with Murray and Councilman Phil Cromer voting against it.

Murray continued to raise concerns throughout the meeting saying it was improper to continue any discussion once the vote to table had passed and asked the prevailing side to reconsider.

When it became clear that no one was moving toward that end, Murray said, “It’s a sad day for transparency in the City of Beaufort” and abruptly left the meeting.

As Murray was leaving, HBF’s former executive director Maxine Lutz stood and said, “It’s a sad day in this community that you are quieting these people who came here tonight to speak.”

Following the vote, Mayor Billy Keyserling alluded to comments made by community members who took him to task over his position to remove the seat, a position which he outlined in a Nov. 20 column in The Island News.

“In light of the conversations, the discussions, the emails, the telephone calls, the ugly names, the nice names, and the community broad conversation, it’s been clear to me that I’m on the different side of this issue from many of my friends, many of my allies, and an organization that I have supported since I came back to Beaufort 30 or so years ago,” he said.

Keyserling went on to say that he and McFee had met with HBF’s Executive Director Cynthia Jenkins and Board of Trustees Chairman John Troutman the previous week to discuss “the bigger picture.”

He then announced the appointment of a panel to take up the issue of the seat, along with other topics such as training and improved standards that would simplify the process for applicants going before the review board.

The panel will consist of three members from HBF along with council members McFee and Cromer, and Beaufort’s City Manager Bill Prokop. The group is to issue a report within 60-days that would serve as a “talking piece” for a public work session, the mayor said.

Though it was made somewhat moot by the decision to table, Jenkins urged the council to approve HBF’s nominee for a seat on the review board. The board is supposed to have five members and has not had five members in the past five months, she said.

“That is much too long and not in the best interest, short or long-term, for the city,” she said.

At the conclusion of the meeting, the mayor said he felt he should apologize to the public for Murray’s departure.

“It disappoints me greatly to see a member walk out of a meeting when the public has come to a meeting,” Keyserling said. “We can all have our differences or we can live with our differences, but I find that kind of behavior not very becoming of council. And in 11 years it’s the first time anything like that has happened.”

Other Business

In other business, council also moved to strike language from the Beaufort Development Code which would prevent building widths from exceeding 160 feet along street frontage or any portion of a building from exceeding 160 feet in any direction.

The ordinance passed 3 to 1, with Councilman Cromer voting against.

City Council is on holiday break and will not meet again until Jan. 14.