Bolton: Columbia voters might have to force referendum on strong mayor

Associate EditorMay 23, 2013 

Bolton

TIM DOMINICK/TDOMINICK@THESTATE.

— IF COLUMBIA voters want an opportunity to decide whether the city should be run by a full-time mayor, they’re likely going to have to make it happen themselves.

Every attempt to get the matter on the ballot via City Council has failed.

Several years ago, then-Mayor Bob Coble spearheaded an effort to have a communitywide dialogue about the city’s form of government, but the chances of anything productive coming of it died when the council appointed a commission to lead the discussion and make recommendations and stacked it with people who opposed strong mayor. The time, money and effort spent was wasted; despite agreeing that the city government was broken, the panel made no recommendation.

After promising to address the matter and then stalling for more than a year, the council finally took action in May of 2012: It voted 4-3 against letting the people decide.

The issue of strong mayor arose again last week as Mayor Steve Benjamin answered questions following his announcement that he would seek a second term. The mayor said that he wanted the council to take another vote on the matter and if that should fail, he would support a citizens effort to get it on the ballot. Under state law, citizens can force a referendum if 15 percent of eligible voters sign a petition.

When I talked with him earlier this week, Mr. Benjamin said that despite being convinced that Columbia needs an empowered mayor, he won’t take the lead in pushing for change. Mayor Benjamin — much like Mayor Coble before him — said he doesn’t want people to perceive that he’s making a “power grab.”

Without a doubt, the idea is to give the mayor the power to lead our capital city — the power that so many voters believe the mayor already has.

But it would hardly be a power grab for the person in the position to know best what it takes to do the job to be honest about telling constituents that a new form of government is needed. Mr. Benjamin is open about saying that “the amount of time and energy it takes to do this job and do it the way it has to be done” requires his full-time attention.

Under the current council-manager structure, the mayor is just another council member who happens to run meetings and cut ribbons. The other six members on Columbia’s council have as much power as the mayor.

It is a government form that dilutes power; no one is in charge. When things go wrong, the mayor and the six council members as well as the unelected city manager who runs day-to-day operations can plead a lack of power. There is no one empowered to speak and act with authority.

A strong mayor would be that someone. He would be focused every day on making the city better; there would be no question who was in charge. For better or worse, the buck would stop with the elected executive, who would have to respond quickly and decisively to correct problems or move projects and initiatives forward — or face the wrath of voters.

Unfortunately, some council members like the fact that they have as much power as the mayor and can take solo actions to affect city government for narrow constituencies.

With a full-time mayor running the city, council members no longer would be able to lean on the city manager, whom they now hire and fire. Also, having an elected executive would make it a lot tougher for council members to meddle in day-to-day affairs.

As I’ve often noted, there are no truer words than those spoken by Councilwoman Tameika Isaac Devine after she decided against a bid for mayor back in 2009. “Really all I would gain was the title of mayor and the responsibility to go to a lot more things than I do now,” she said. “As far as actually doing the job in representing my constituency, the job I have is the same as the job of mayor.”

Humans don’t respond well to giving up power. So, maybe it’s too much to ask council members to reduce their own influence, even if it’s for the greater good. Even if it’s what the people want.

While the council has continually resisted a referendum, polls have suggested that residents not only want to vote on the question of strong mayor but that they’ll likely approve a change. A December 2009 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. An earlier survey, conducted by Quinn and Associates in 2005, found that 60 percent of active city voters favored a strong elected mayor.

Mr. Benjamin said he believes the matter will come back before the council. “If it happens between now and November, I would be supportive of that,” he said. “If it happens after that, I’ll be supportive of it. It should be on the ballot. We should be discussing it.”

But even with two new members on board, would a vote of council turn out any differently than it did last year? Mr. Benjamin and council members Brian Newman and Cameron Runyan are the ones likely to favor giving voters the chance to decide. Sam Davis, Tameika Isaac Devine and Leona Plaugh voted against a referendum in 2012.

That would leave Councilman Moe Baddourah, who is running for mayor himself these days, as the deciding vote. Prior to being elected, Mr. Baddourah had spoken strongly in favor of strong mayor; but right before taking office, he said he had changed his mind.

Mr. Benjamin is comfortable with the thought of citizens coming together to demand a referendum. “I’ve always felt that this discussion ought to be community led,” he said.

But who from the community will step up and take the lead? Anyone?

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

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