After years of bubbling tension and recent drama, how can Cayce leaders move past infighting?

The way an emergency family meeting will inevitably be tense, so it was with a recent meeting of Cayce city leaders, who were again at odds April 9.

Mayor Elise Partin’s recent accusation that her fellow City Council members illegally colluded to oust her from a number of local governing boards amounts to just the most recent example in a years-long line of dramatic relations among the elected officials who govern the city of about 14,000 across the Congaree River from downtown Columbia.

The frequent infighting leaves open questions about how city leaders can cohesively move forward with decisions that affect the future of the city and its residents and businesses.

At that recent council meeting, described by Mayor Pro Tem Tim James as a sort of family conflict resolution, clear frustrations swirled around the proverbial kitchen table. Council members and some residents criticized Partin for going to the media to accuse council members of collusion, while Partin and some other residents accused the four male council members of sexism as a motivation for actions against her — an accusation that James didn’t take lightly.

“I’m a father of two daughters, and I want to see the very best for ladies that I possibly can,” he said. “Nobody can question that. Nobody. Don’t you dare.”

Residents lamented that the city frequently grabs headlines for negative reasons due to council infighting.

And a former longtime member of council made his own frustrations known.

“I’m so sick of trying to understand why Cayce wants to go back instead of going forward,” said James “Skip” Jenkins, who lost his council seat to Byron Thomas in November.

One assertion made during the meeting was unquestionably true: Tensions have flared frequently on council.

The meeting also made clear that regardless of any conflicts, council will have to continue working together to make big decisions. That very night, the council considered a potential residential development in a historic area and a possible elimination of industrial restrictions near a nature preserve, without yet moving forward on either of those decisions.

Fault lines forming

Speaking with The State, Partin, James and Councilman Hunter Sox all acknowledged recent friction among the members, with Sox and the mayor both circling the same moment in 2021 as establishing the fault lines that currently divide them.

The election that November installed Sox on council. Shortly after, a member of the city’s Historical Museum Commission, who ultimately resigned, was accused by a city staffer of making racist statements on election day while out at the polls in support of Sox.

Before the commissioner resigned, Jenkins brought an email about the incident before council, which voted 3-2 not to remove the commissioner, with Sox, James and Councilman Phil Carter blocking his ouster. Another accusation against the commissioner followed his resignation, and an investigation was initiated, ultimately identifying no racist attitudes on the museum commission.

Among the things the commissioner was accused of saying was that Columbia didn’t need “another colored person as mayor.”

Looking back, Sox questioned whether the matter was handled appropriately.

“He said what he said in confidence that he was friends with who he said it to enough that they wouldn’t run and say anything crazy,” Sox said. “But then again, he’s 80-something years old. I don’t know that he’s thinking about the repercussions of what he said at that point. But I think he said it to a staffer who said something along the lines of, ‘You’re not going to believe what this guy said,’ you know, as a person-to-person to the mayor. And somehow that got to, ‘Oh, that’s not good. How do we get this guy off the committee?’”

Sox also took issue with the timing with which Partin and Jenkins brought the initial push to remove the commissioner before council, complaining that they shouldn’t have done it on the same night he and James got sworn in, as it’s not typically an occasion to deal with such serious business.

“They needed to make a tough, tough decision,” Partin said, acknowledging the difficult position Sox and James were put in. “It wasn’t easy. It was somebody they knew. But you know, if you’re going to serve the people, you have to make tough decisions.”

Partin drew a clear connection between their consternation at the spotlight in which the city found itself at that moment and their balking at her going to the media last month.

“They’re fine doing bad things,” she said. “They don’t want to get called out on it.”

James pushed back on the notion that council has been divided since the museum controversy.

“You’re going to have some times that maybe don’t feel as comfortable as others,” he said, adding that he doesn’t see a particular pattern in the frustrations that have bubbled up on council of late. It just happens when council members feel particularly passionate about a given issue, he reasoned.

“That friction allows you to recognize you’re moving and you’re growing, and the city of Cayce is moving and growing,” James said.

More tensions grow

The topic of appointing new citizen volunteers to the city’s various commissions and committees became a frequent point of argument following the museum controversy, with Carter and Sox pushing to address the requirements for people to serve, while Partin argued that continuing to allow volunteers to serve in the order they were received was sufficient.

The members seeking change turned to blocking appointments in an attempt to address the issue, which angered Partin.

“Three times, they didn’t appoint women to just volunteer with our city. And that’s an easy example. Because it’s an easy decision. It’s one of the easiest things we do,” Partin said.

One of those women, Marcy Hayden, challenged Carter for his council seat in November, a race he won handily.

Ultimately, the process for making the appointments was addressed, and Sox said that’s all they were trying to accomplish. And he praised council for coming together to get that done.

“Coming to the table, and hearing that we wanted to change the process on how we appoint people to committees to be a little more vigorous than just the next person up, because most cities are,” Sox said.

Cayce’s November 2024 election was contentious all around, with Partin facing a stiff challenge from a Lexington 2 school board member Abbott “Tre” Bray and the race between Jenkins and Thomas also becoming heated.

An unusual thorny issue in that second campaign came when Thomas announced he would start a scholarship for a student at Brookland-Cayce High School in Jenkins’ honor if Thomas should win the election, with Jenkins clapping back that he wanted no part in that. Sox said the situation stemmed from an initial belief that Jenkins wouldn’t seek reelection.

Thomas said he’s moving forward with the scholarship with Jenkins’ blessing, but the former councilman expressed concern that he’s not being included enough in the process to set up a scholarship that will bear his name.

“It’s gonna have to be approved by me if you use my name,” Jenkins said.

Have to work together

Sox observed that in the past three years, council’s membership has shaken up to the point that Partin can no longer lead in the way she once did.

“I think Elise was kind of running the show in whatever staff wanted to do what she wanted to do, and everybody kind of supported her,” he said. “And I think that there became some division whenever I got on council. I don’t know that that necessarily was because of me, or because I just wasn’t necessarily going to be her best friend.”

For her part, the mayor said she doesn’t see herself or council working all that differently than they have in the recent past, even if it’s become harder to move things along.

The council is working “the same way that we always lead, which is with communication, with information,” Partin said. “There really shouldn’t be much that we are doing as a city that everybody doesn’t want to be on board about. We have some of the best staff around, it’s really phenomenal the level that we’re functioning. What it means, sadly for the citizens, is that we probably can’t get as much done as we normally would. I’ll do the same things I’ve been doing for 15 years.”

James said all that’s required is realizing they’re all still working toward the same goal.

“We’ve never been apart. When it comes to what’s right for the citizens, this council has always worked in unison to do what’s best,” he said. “For us to continue moving forward, that started (at the April 9 council meeting) — to continue, not to start, to continue. We move forward. I have the good opportunity to deal with four other professional people, and I never saw it stop.”