By Brian Sherman for The Island Eye News
A total of seven political hopefuls will be on the ballot May 4, when Sullivan’s Island residents venture to the polls to elect a mayor and three members of the Town Council. Some have lived on the island for decades, and others are relative newcomers.
Three candidates currently serve on the Council, while four are dipping their toes into the campaign waters for the first time. They have landed in the Lowcountry from places as diverse as Iowa, Pennsylvania and Texas.
And though they all followed different educational, professional and geographical paths to Sullivan’s Island, they share one important trait: the desire to help make the island a better place to live now and in the future.
THE MAYOR’S RACE
Patrick M. O’Neil
The mayor since 2015 and a member of the Council for 14 years before that, O’Neil has lived on Sullivan’s Island since 1985. He is partially retired but still serves as a clinical psychologist and professor at the Medical University of South Carolina. He said he is seeking re-election because there is still work to be done.
“We have, and the whole world has been through a year from hell, and I want to guide us back to a smooth landing,” he commented.
“This is a bad time to walk away.”
The COVID-19 pandemic and other issues have brought vast changes to Sullivan’s Island, but O’Neil said the island’s most important issue is that its residents want to feel like they can trust the Town Council on issues such as resiliency – particularly in relation to the rising sea level – and preserving and protecting the island’s history, unique environment and natural resources, especially the Maritime Forest.
“A lot of people felt like there was not enough openness about the whole process, and I don’t disagree with that,” he said.
O’Neil pointed out that under his watch as mayor, the town has survived a thousand year flood, an ice storm, hurricanes and “a little thing called the pandemic,” and that “people have observed my leadership through all that.”
O’Neil, who once served as chair of the Sullivan’s Island Planning Commission, had no political experience before his successful campaign for the Council in 2001.
“I didn’t start out life wanting to be mayor,” he said. “I stepped up when I thought there was a need for it. It’s been a real privilege to serve the folks on the island.”
Before he retired, Chauncey Clark worked for a project management company, helping to build airports and hotels. Now, he said, his job is working for the town. He’s spent the past eight years on the Council, much of that time as mayor pro tem, and he wants to take the next step by seeking the mayor’s seat.
“I like leading groups of people. That’s what I’ve been doing my whole life,” said Clark, who has lived on Sullivan’s Island since October 1995. “I love working with people who have common goals.”
In addition to serving on the Town Council, Clark is chairman of the USS Yorktown Foundation, an organization that funds scholarships and education programs.
“It’s one of the most rewarding things I do,” he remarked.
Clark cited flooding as the major issue facing the residents of Sullivan’s Island. He said the Department of Transportation doesn’t have the time or funds to help solve this problem, so the town will have to continue to seek grant money to make sure the necessary work is completed. He added that traffic is another issue that must be dealt with.
“It used to be a summer thing. Now it’s all year,” he said.
“There’s going to be a massive increase in traffic in the next 10 years. We’re happy to have visitors, but it costs $800,000 a year out of our tax base to take care of them.”
An Army veteran who was a chopper pilot in Vietnam, Clark and his wife, Cheryl, will celebrate their 50th anniversary this year.
Their two children and five grandchildren live in nearby Mount Pleasant.
“I love this island and I love my family. It’s paradise,” he concluded.
THE TOWN COUNCIL RACE
There are three open seats on the Sullivan’s Island Town Council. To be elected, a candidate must garner at least one more vote than a majority, which is determined by dividing the total votes cast for all candidates by the number of offices to be filled and dividing the results by two.
For example, if 1,500 votes are cast in the Council race, a person will need a minimum of 251 votes to be elected without a runoff: 1,500 ÷ 3 = 500 ÷ 2 = 250 +1 = 251.
If two candidates attain a majority, the runoff will be between the next two vote-getters.
If only one candidate receives a majority, three people will be in the runoff on May 18.
Quality of life and maintaining Sullivan’s Island’s residential feel are the most important issues facing island residents, according to incumbent Council Member Tim Reese. He’s seeking another four-year term, and he said he deserves to be re-elected because “I’m not afraid to act.”
“Prior to my time on Council, for years, previous Councils would look at issues, hire consultants and not act,” he explained. “The last four years, more things have been done to move the town forward.”
He pointed out that, in his opinion, the renovation of the town’s sewer treatment plant and lift stations and of the fire station should have been completed years ago and that there’s still a lot of work to be done to deal with stormwater, right of way improvements and traffic, especially in the commercial district.
“All these things affect our quality of life,” he said.
Reese had no political experience before running for a Council seat in 2017, though he did chair the Sullivan’s Island Election Commission for eight years – and he was active as a private citizen, attending Council meetings on a regular basis.
A Navy brat and later a naval officer, Reese has been in the residential real estate business for the past decade. He and his wife, Frannie, raised four children on Sullivan’s Island, where they have lived since 1996. Frannie’s family has owned property on the island for nearly a century; her grandfather bought a house on the beach in the 1930s.
Scott Millimet honed his business skills working with an asset management firm, and now that he’s mostly retired, he thinks his experience would serve the Sullivan’s Island Council well. He said the process that led to the agreement on the Maritime Forest was flawed.
“The resulting division in the town is something that happens when you have a flawed process and lack of transparency,” he commented.
“Decisions are made in the interest of a few as opposed to the interest of the many.”
Millimet said he spent 40 years building teams of diverse people and always listening to and considering their input. He pointed out that in business and in government, “everybody doesn’t get what they want when a decision is made.”
“My mantra is listening, leading and executing,” he remarked.
Millimet said the most important issue for the residents of Sullivan’s Island is the subject that has caused the most divisiveness: the agreement to allow cutting in the Maritime Forest. He said the agreement between the town and homeowners is a legally binding decision but added that the town, working with DHEC, the Corps of Engineers and conservation groups, can “march back some of the drastic measures that were underscored in that agreement.”
He cited traffic and infrastructure as other important issues.
Millimet and his wife, Janet, both are natives of Texas but moved to Sullivan’s Island from the Boston area. They have four children and have lived on the island for almost nine years.
Justin Novak has lived in New York, Georgia, Connecticut, Virginia and Washington, D.C., but, when it came time for he and his wife, Sara, to pick a place to raise their kids, they chose Sullivan’s Island. Now he’s decided that he wants to help determine the direction the town takes by running for a seat on the Council and dealing with what he said are “specific challenges to small communities like Sullivan’s Island.”
“The fundamental reason I decided to run was how we respond to those challenges is going to define whether we maintain the special character of this place or give some of that up,” he said.
He said it’s time for him to step forward and present his ideas on making Sullivan’s Island a great place to live now and in the future. He said the most important issues to residents are preserving and enhancing the history of the island and having a Town Council that actively engages with and listens to the public.
“I want to ensure that more people are involved in the decision-making process and that the process is transparent,” he said. “All views should be taken into account. I also want to see us be very intentional about preserving the character of the community, our historic places and natural spaces that set us apart from other places.”
The Novaks have two children: Keegan, 5, and Catherine Willet, 1. They have lived on the island for two years.
Realizing that serving on the Town Council is a time consuming job, Kevin Pennington waited until he retired from his human relations career with Fortune 500 companies to run for office. Now that he has the time, he’s determined to “give the islanders a better voice and protect the quality of life and history we all like here.”
He said the most important issue facing island residents is resiliency, especially stormwater management. He said there needs to be a real effort to find the funding to address this problem.
“When it rains, some streets are impassable. We need to stop talking about it and do something about it,” he said.
Pennington pointed out that his experience in the business would serve him well as a member of the Council, not only because he is a good communicator but also because of his experience with complex organizations.
“We always hear that our residents feel things have been done in the back room. We need to get input and to speak for the island, not for the loudest voice in the room,” he said. “We need to hold the Council accountable. I’d like to think we could do better.”
Pennington, a native of Philadelphia who has lived in nine states, has served on Sullivan’s Island’s Design Review Board, while his wife, Caroline, is a member of the Tree Commission. They have lived on the island for 12 years.
After serving on the Sullivan’s Island Planning Commission for nine years, part of that time as chair, Gary Visser felt like it was time to take the next step and run for a seat on the Council.
Visser, who was not reappointed to the Planning Commission, said every important issue facing the town of Sullivan’s Island has to do with resiliency, from parking to the Maritime Forest to stormwater runoff and maintenance of the town’s treatment facilities.
“We live on the edge of the Earth here,” he said, adding that the increasing numbers of visitors to the beach create an issue that must be faced as well as embraced.
“The beaches are the property of everybody in the state of South Carolina, but they are a finite resource,” he said. “Only so many people can fit on the island at a time and retain the requirements for safety. We have to find a balance of being a good host and still providing safety.”
He said the town also must develop a plan to protect and preserve its historic homes, buildings that differentiate Sullivan’s Island from its neighbors.
Visser said it’s important for residents to voice their opinions to the Council and for members of the Council to respect those opinions. He added that it’s vital for town officials to “restore a more public process.”
A native of Humboldt, Iowa, Visser was in sales before he retired. His wife, Dr. Elizabeth Bjornson, is a periodontist. They have lived on the island, where they raised their two children, for 33 years.