Change would be immediate if voters OK strong mayor in November

cleblanc@thestate.comMay 15, 2013 

— If city voters agree this fall to convert Columbia’s part-time mayor into a full-time boss of city government, the historic power shift would be effective immediately, experts in municipal law say.

Opinions are divided, however, on the separate issue of whether the new mayor could get a big raise as soon as the job description changes from a $17,500 per year, part-time position.

For decades, Columbia has operated under a strong-manager form of government. The manager is appointed by a majority vote of City Council. A change at the top could result in current city manager Teresa Wilson becoming a $190,000 per-year assistant to a powerful mayor. The change would mean the mayor ceases being just one vote on council and would assume the manager’s duties: hiring, firing and having day-to-day control of city operations.

Mayor Steve Benjamin, who launched his re-election campaign Monday, said Wednesday he will not push for replacing the strong-manager form before Election Day. But if another council member raises the issue, he will support it, as he has for years, he said.

Benjamin said Monday if council – which has been split on the hot-button issue – does not vote to put the choice on the Nov. 5 ballot, he supports a petition drive to get the question on the November ballot. State law allows citizens to force a referendum if 15 percent of eligible voters sign.

Benjamin would not say whether he would seek a petition in time for November’s election, the city’s first in the autumn instead of the spring.

Neither Benjamin nor City Council has discussed publicly how soon a change in the form of government could take effect.

Yet in a 2012 legal opinion, written at the request of the city of Columbia but not released by the city, the state Attorney General’s office said a strong mayor could take control just after Election Day.

That opinion reversed 36 years of legal advice given to S.C. municipalities.

The attorney general had for decades said such changes could take effect only in the next election cycle. “We find that the position ... was clearly in error,” a June 11, 2012, opinion from assistant attorney general Dana Hofferber states.

“The form adopted shall become effective upon the issuance of a certificate of incorporation,” last year’s 11-page opinion states. Certificates of incorporation are issued, usually routinely, by the S.C. Secretary of State’s office when a city incorporates or changes its form of government. Any opinion issued by the current Attorney General’s office represents the legal advice of Attorney General Alan Wilson.

Hofferber told the city it also will need prior approval from the U.S. Justice Department’s civil rights division, required for all S.C. election law changes. She recommended that council also adopt the change by municipal law.

Most of South Carolina’s 270 towns and cities have mayors who run the government, according to the Municipal Association of South Carolina. But among the larger cities, only Charleston and North Charleston have strong mayors.

The Municipal Association agrees that changes in the form of government can take effect quickly. Yet it disputes another attorney general opinion, dated Nov. 8, 2004, that municipal councils may immediately raise the new mayor’s salary to reflect a change to a full-time position.

“In order to prevent your city from being challenged in court,” Scott Slatton, the association’s public policy advocate said, “we would recommend that cities follow the state law that says salaries cannot be changed (until) following the next general election.”

Reach LeBlanc at (803) 771-8664.

The State is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere in the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

Commenting FAQs | Terms of Service