Bolton: Just what do Columbians think about strong mayor?

Associate EditorJanuary 20, 2010 

DESPITE A recent survey showing the majority of Columbia residents want a strong mayor to run the city, some on City Council dispute the findings.

They don't believe it, they say. The survey didn't include a large enough sample size, they say. They haven't heard of anything that suggests a majority of residents supports an empowered executive, they say. The push for a referendum is only the result of a small, vocal minority, they argue.

Their claims are based largely in emotion, not fact. Meanwhile, they reject the survey results, which, while they aren't gospel, do give us a glimpse of just what the facts might be.

A December survey of Columbia residents conducted for The State by Metromark Market Research found that 58 percent of respondents want a full-time mayor. Only 19 percent said they preferred a city manager, with the remaining 23 percent undecided.

Nearly 50 percent of the 363 people surveyed in the city limits were black, while 46 percent were white. For the record, African-Americans make up 43 percent of the city's population, while white residents make up 52 percent, according to 2008 census figures.

Emerson Smith of Metromark said the sample size was adequate. If the sample size of 363 had been increased to 1,000, the margin of error would have decreased by just a percentage point.

Council members would do well to take the findings to heart as they discuss the prospects of placing this matter on the ballot in November. Unfortunately, it seems some have no intention of giving the results any credence.

That's not surprising.

That's the same reception a 2005 poll of voters, which had similar findings as the recent State-Metromark survey, received from some on the council - who stand to lose some clout if a strong mayor system is adopted - and members of a council-appointed commission charged with studying the city's governing structure.

The 2005 poll, conducted by Richard Quinn & Associates, found that 60 percent of active city voters favored a strong elected mayor. A full-time mayor enjoyed strong support among both black and white registered voters.

That said, critics raised legitimate questions about whether the results of the Quinn & Associates poll - based on voters who had voted in at least one general election and one primary election - accurately reflected the will of city residents. The questions were raised, in part, because only 30 percent of respondents were black - significantly lower than the city's black population. Remember, the 30 percent figure reflected the share of city residents who regularly voted in elections.

At the time, Mr. Quinn said that since African-American voters showed stronger support for strong mayor, increasing black representation would have strengthened the poll's findings. But it's not as simple as that: Oftentimes, there is a big difference between the opinions of people who vote and people who don't.

Still, the support for an empowered mayor in the first poll was so strong it's hard to believe that a poll of city residents would be as negative as critics speculated. Indeed, the more recent poll, which didn't have those same problems, produced a nearly identical finding.

The government study commission that largely ignored the 2005 poll was stacked against strong mayor. Even so, it did determine that city government is broken, council members meddle in day-to-day affairs and the city lacks a long-term strategic plan. But it made no recommendation at all.

Go figure.

While I don't agree with those on council who reject the latest poll, no poll should be embraced as a decisive measure. But polls can give us an idea of public sentiment. In this case, there's strong sentiment in Columbia for a full-time, elected executive.

But some council members don't believe it.

Well, there's one way they can find out for sure what the will of the people is: Let the people vote.

If you don't think that's the prevailing sentiment, what's there to fear?

Go ahead. Put it on the ballot.

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

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