Bolton: Status quo must go

Associate EditorJanuary 13, 2010 

NOTE TO Columbia City Council members:

It's not about you.

As the council discusses allowing voters to decide whether they want the city to be run by a strong mayor, some members will be focused on preserving their own power - even if it's to the detriment of the city.

But there's too much at stake for council members to get myopic.

Columbia is a growing metropolitan city with lots going for it - it's a state capital, has three rivers running through it, the fort, a great climate, a favorable cost of living, a major university and other institutions of higher education. When the economy stabilizes and begins to click again, I expect Columbia to make a solid come-back and resume efforts to grow the riverfront and downtown and preserve its neighborhoods. The city's ability to boost its economy will hinge on building the right kinds of alliances, wise spending decisions, sound leadership and clear vision.

The difference between Columbia becoming a great city versus a good city will hinge on whether it goes forward under a council-manager form of government - under which vision is short-term and narrow and decisions are slow in coming or aren't coming at all - or a strong mayor who can make decisions quickly, clearly articulate a long-term vision and be held accountable.

There's no doubt that council members - and others, for that matter - will lose power if a strong mayor is given the reins. But if the change is best for the whole, then it needs to be made.

Unfortunately, some council members have gotten comfortable with the fact that they have as much power as the mayor and can take solo actions to affect city government for narrow constituencies. With an empowered mayor, council members won't be able to strong-arm a city manager they now hire and fire, and they won't be able to easily bypass the executive and meddle in day-to-day affairs.

Columbia's mayor is so powerless that at-large Councilwoman Tameika Isaac Devine said she wouldn't run for the position because she is just as powerful and can get everything she wants done from her current position.

At the moment, council members who serve districts sometimes get so locked into what's best for their districts - even when they mean well - that they push for projects and programs in their smaller area at the expense of the whole. Those council members also use their power to deliver the goods to solidify their seats on council. The unfortunate thing is that, sometimes, things that would benefit the entire city don't get done because certain districts aren't included.

African-American council members, along with many in their communities, are likely to be among the most leery when it comes to strong mayor. It's understandable. After all, for decades, their communities were purposely overlooked by the city fathers. It wasn't until Luther Battiste and E.W. Cromartie, who continues to serve, were elected to districts in 1982 that black residents gained voices on the council, and issues important to African-Americans have gotten much-needed attention. Some feel that a strong mayor could now come in with an agenda that excludes their needs.

But it would be foolish for a mayor to ignore nearly half of the city's population. Black voters play a large role in determining who gets elected citywide. And they'll have an opportunity in April to help elect a black mayor if they determine one of the African-American candidates in the field would best represent them.

The bottom line is that the strong mayor structure is the better way to govern our capital city.

While there are those who say it would allow a mayor to run amok, the fact is that there would be significant checks on a strong mayor: an involved, active council, which would have to sign off on the budget as well as much of what even a strong mayor wants to do, and an engaged citizenry - particularly voters who could replace a mayor every four years.

While council members' largest concern about putting strong mayor on the ballot is that their power might be reduced, they're probably also concerned that a referendum on strong mayor is a referendum on them.

It's not like council members can defend the current system by talking about how it has kept the city operating smoothly in recent years. This council has overseen - well, it didn't really "oversee" anything, which is the problem - a fiscal mess the past few years and has yet to explain to the public what exactly went wrong.

That's going to be fresh on voters' minds. There's no way of wiping away the glaring fiscal failures that, in my mind, not only wiped out the former city manager and permanent finance director, but helped spell the end of Mayor Bob Coble's admirable tenure.

If Columbia is going to meet the needs of its neighborhoods and its diverse population, fortify the city center and jump start its economy, it's got to move beyond the weak mayor system.

Right now, there is no empowered, fully accountable elected official looking out for all interests in Columbia. What we have are groups grasping at bits of power in hopes of getting what little they can while an overall vision is lost. This fragmentation of power holds Columbia back.

And some on City Council want to hold onto that sad status quo? Why?

Reach Mr. Bolton at (803) 771-8631 or wbolton@thestate.com.

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