by Matthew Christian
Florence City Councilwoman Pat Gibson-Hye Moore said she felt like crying when Mayor Stephen J. Wukela announced he won’t seek a fourth term of office.
Wukela announced his decision at the beginning of the annual state of the city address at the Greater Florence Chamber of Commerce Membership Luncheon held Thursday in the ballroom of the Florence Center.
He was elected Florence mayor in 2008 by one vote over incumbent Frank Willis. Wukela was re-elected in 2012 and 2016. During the 2016 election, Wukela received 14,108 votes or 98.4% of the total.
In Florence, the office of mayor and two at-large city council seats are up for election every four years on the same cycle as the presidential elections, such as 2012, 2016 and 2020. The four remaining members, three district seats and one at-large seat, are elected on the same cycle as the governor, as in 2014, 2018 and 2022.
“I’m very unhappy about it,” Gibson-Hye Moore said. “He did such a great job with the city of Florence during the past three terms he served as mayor. It makes me really just want to bust out into tears.”
Wukela is a wonderful mayor, Gibson-Hye Moore said, and a wonderful friend.
“Florence needs him so much,” she said. “We need him for at least another four years.”
She said she understood Wukela has other obligations to his family.
“Family comes first,” she said.
After announcing his decision not to seek another term, Wukela used his speech to outline some of the challenges facing the city as it moves forward.
Among those challenges are the building and maintenance of hard infrastructure like roads, water, sewer and stormwater public works.
The issue of funding to maintain city roads is something the mayor has frequently spoken of.
Basically, the city has accumulated an estimated 100 miles of roadway since the S.C. Department of Transportation stopped accepting streets into its maintenance system.
There is no current funding mechanism for the city to be able to afford to maintain those roads.
Wukela previously testified in Columbia about the city’s road problem in regard to a proposed municipal capital project sales tax.
There is some degree of frustration from the city that the county’s road maintenance fee and capital project sales taxes are mostly collected in Florence, but the city does not receive all of that revenue, which it needs to maintain the roads.
Wukela then transitioned into the issue of racial divisions, which he called the “single biggest threat” to the future of the city.
“We must recognize and practically address our history of division in this city, black from white, North from South,” he said.
He said that “ a great deal has been accomplished — a great deal remains to be done. We cannot succeed if we are divided.”
Wukela paraphrased Dr. Martin Luther King: “We remain tied together in a single garment of destiny — an inescapable network of mutuality. The success of each of us is inextricably tied to the success of all of us.”
Wukela said he has been fortunate to lead the city “during a time in which opportunity met people of good will.”
“The partnerships — the dear friendships — that have been forged and tested made great success possible,” he said. “We will continue that work in my remaining year. …”
He said he thought it was important to announce his decision so that maybe some young upstart like he was when he first ran in 2008 could have the chance to run.
Other community leaders said they were sad to learn of Wukela’s decision but said they understand his obligation to his family.
S.C. Sen. Hugh K. Leatherman Sr. said he is saddened learn of the mayor’s decision.
“Look at downtown, what’s happened down there,” Leatherman said. “He believes in what he’s doing, and he’s done a great job.”
City Manager Drew Griffin said he had some inclination that Wukela wouldn’t be seeking a fourth term.
“It was more of a confirmation of what I had intuitively picked up,” Griffin said. “My feeling is I’m very disappointed. I think he’s done a fantastic job with this community.”
Griffin said he was quoting Francis Marion University President Fred Carter’s views on the community’s success under Wukela.
“I really hate to see him decide that, but I think that it is good for his family, and I know that he needs a little bit of time, a little bit of rest, but everybody will miss him,” Griffin said.
City Councilwoman Teresa Myers Ervin said she has been talking with Wukela for some time to try to change his mind about not running.
“I was hoping that he would consider another term,” she said. “I believe that with the council we have in place now, we have been so successful in developing the city of Florence.”
There are so many changes happening in the city, she said, that she really wished he would have considered another term.
“But, the long and the short, when it comes to your family and your family needs, your family has to be first,” Myers Ervin said. “We’re good because we still have him in the city of Florence. I believe that we can still continue to make progress as long as we have a council that will work together.”
City Councilman George D. Jebaily said he was appreciative of the mayor’s accomplishments and all that he has done for the city. He praised Wukela’s passion and his and his family’s commitment to the city.