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A prayer and call ‘to put ourselves back together’ as race for new Beaufort mayor begins

Karl Puckett/kapuckett@islandpacket.com

In its first meeting since Mayor Stephen Murray resigned suddenly 11 days ago, members of the Beaufort City Council got advice from the public — and a prayer.

With acting Mayor Mike McFee taking the reigns, the council forged ahead, officially setting a Dec. 12 election date to determine the replacement for the remainder of Murray’s term that ends in 2024. Also decided was the timeframe for the 10-day candidate filing period and the fee required to get on the ballot.

But Murray’s resignation, which came after almost three years as mayor and nearly 10 years on the council, hung over the Tuesday meeting.

In his resignation, Murray cited a “daily barrage of uncivil and rude people accusing me of impropriety without a shred of proof.” The weight of the mayor’s duties, he also said, were taking a toll on his health, family and reputation.

His departure came as fissures between development and preservationist factions became more public. The flashpoint for this rift was a recent decision by the city to remove a dedicated seat for the Historic Beaufort Foundation (HBF), a historic preservation group, on the city’s Historic District Review Board (HDRB).

“It makes me very sad there are factions against factions in our community,” said Kay Merrill, who addressed the council during the public comment portion of the meeting. “We need to put ourselves back together again.”

Merrill, who lives in the Pigeon Point neighborhood, said it may have been Pollyanna of her to believe that the “chaos” that is dividing many communities would never find “beautiful Beaufort.” But it has, she said.

Merrill doesn’t have the answers but, in her view, residents can start by taking a step back and a deep breath and getting beyond the “ugliness” that’s getting in the way of progress and finding a balance between historic preservation and making the city welcoming and affordable for young people. Merrill urged a “civil, fair, honest and respectful debate that involves all residents.”

“All — all —of our citizens,” Merrill said. “Not just the vocal ones.”

To start the meeting, The Rev. Bryson Williams of Carteret Street United Methodist Church said the opening prayer. Bryson asked for a blessing for the entire council and the community but specifically mentioned McFee, who was officially beginning his term as acting mayor. Bryson is the pastor at the church McFee attends.

In his opening, Williams prayed, “God, he didn’t especially sign up for this but in these moments may he know that he is serving the community and we pray for him.”

One of the first post-Murray actions of the council was approving a Dec. 12 election date to select a new mayor. The filing period will run from Oct. 6 through Oct. 16 and there will be a $250 filing fee. The winner of the election will serve until December 2024.

Others stepped forward to the microphone to thank Murray and the remaining council members for service to the community .

“What a couple of weeks its been,” said Kevin Phillips, a Port Royal Town councilman, also speaking during the public comment period about Murray. “I wanted to say thank you, because I’m sure you don’t hear it very often,” he told council members and staff.

Jenny Phillips, Phillip’s wife, said it is her hope that, whoever fills Murray’s spot as mayor, “can understand and continue to advocate for those who want to live and work affordably and sustainably in the Beaufort area.”

Grant McClure of the Coastal Conservation League said Murray would be missed. He championed environmental issues and was an ally on land-use and regional planning issues and made strides in helping the city combat climate change, flooding and sea level rise, he said.

Those interested in running for mayor must be a registered voter in South Carolina and a resident of the City of Beaufort. You can verify your registration status at the South Carolina Board of Elections website or by calling the Beaufort County Board of Voter Registration and Elections at 843-255-6900.

Required candidate information can be picked up from City Clerk Traci Guldner, on the second floor at City Hall, 1911 Boundary St., between 8 a.m.-5 p.m. Monday through Friday.

Candidates must also file a statement of economic interest and campaign disclosure by the Oct. 16 with the South Carolina Ethics Commission.

The council’s next regularly scheduled meeting is at 7 p.m. Tuesday, Oct. 10. Subsequent meetings fall on the second and fourth Tuesday of each month.