Editorial: Columbia’s mayor powerless to act as Police Department crumbles

July 28, 2013 

Columbia Mayor Steve Benjamin has a great title, but no real power.

TIM DOMINICK/TDOMINICK@THESTATE.COM.

— WITH THE Columbia Police Department crumbling, Mayor Steve Benjamin outlined a critical series of actions last week aimed at addressing the problems and stabilizing the agency.

The mayor wants to prohibit city administrators from going to crime scenes and speed up the search for a new police chief.

In addition, he wisely counseled that plans to drop disorderly conduct and resisting arrest charges against state NAACP President Lonnie Randolph should be postponed until a judge hears the case. (It’s headed for a jury trial.)

City police had said the charges would be dropped because Dr. Randolph’s behavior was affected by his medical condition. But Mr. Benjamin applied sound reasoning in declaring the case should go through the appropriate process to avoid any appearance of special treatment. Columbia already is fending off claims of special treatment because city manager Teresa Wilson made the poor decision to visit the scene. While Ms. Wilson hires and fires the police chief, she isn’t an officer; her presence raised obvious questions.

These proposals come on the heels of the mayor’s call for a review of police policies in response to the senseless shooting death of a local baker by three suspects, two of whom were out on bond. On the agenda will be the policy that requires police to get approval from a prosecutor before asking a judge for an arrest warrant.

And in between, Mr. Benjamin had appropriately asked SLED to probe dueling claims that fired Capt. David Navarro illegally shredded documents and stole money from a police foundation and that Chief Ruben Santiago concocted a scheme to frame an assistant city manager on drug and weapons charges.

The department’s woes must be addressed quickly before they affect public safety and officers’ effectiveness.

Unfortunately, other than naming a study group and making recommendations, Mr. Benjamin is powerless to act. Under the city’s council-manager form of government, he has no more authority than council members; regardless how urgent a matter is, he must bring it before the council — wasting precious time and with no guarantee of action.

Columbia’s council-manager system has proven incapable of sustaining a stable, effective police department. The rash of scandals and chief departures over the past decade or so has been mind-boggling. But the dysfunction at the agency simply mirrors the dysfunctional, unaccountable council-manager system.

The city manager doesn’t work for the mayor; she works for all seven council members and, therefore, isn’t really accountable to anyone. With council members sharing responsibility equally, when someone drops the ball, no one is accountable; all can claim a lack of power. Often, the unelected manager ends up making political decisions — like visiting a possible crime scene? — that managers shouldn’t be making.

Columbia needs a full-time mayor to oversee day-to-day affairs and hire and fire staff, including the city manager and police chief. That would allow him to move urgently to correct problems such as those at the police department. Also, voters would know that the buck stops at the desk of an elected official who answers to them rather than that of an unelected manager whose name never appears on a ballot.

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