Columbia mayor’s crime-scene ban fails; city manager strikes back

cleblanc@thestate.comAugust 7, 2013 

— Columbia’s mayor and city manager had a public falling out Tuesday, barely seven months into a workplace relationship that critics once decried as too close.

The split occurred over Mayor Steve Benjamin’s proposal to ban city administrators and politicians from active police crime scenes. City manager Teresa Wilson said she took the proposal as a shot aimed to impugn her integrity because of her decision to go to the site of the July 12 arrest of state civil rights leader Lonnie Randolph.

“I don’t care who it is. I’m not going to allow anybody to attack my personal credibility,” Wilson told The State newspaper after Benjamin’s proposal died in a 5-1 vote. The mayor was the only one of the six council members at the meeting to vote in support of his suggestion that would have allowed City Council members to be censured and employees to be disciplined.

Immediately after Benjamin’s plan flamed out, he called on City Council to take up changing the form of government to a “strong-mayor” form at its next meeting, Aug. 13. Council can decide to put a referendum before voters about the city is governed. If approved, the change could be on the same Nov. 5 ballot as Benjamin’s re-election.

He issued a statement Tuesday afternoon in which he said, “Recent news has helped to demonstrate that the present system of governance in Columbia is outdated and structurally flawed.” In a July 24 statement – in which he also did not name Wilson – Benjamin said that having administrators or elected officials at crime scenes creates an appearance of impropriety, “and it needs to stop.”

He has begun raising the strong-mayor issue in media interviews and while on the campaign stump.

Columbia for decades has run under a strong-manager form of government, which leaves the mayor with one of seven votes and a bully pulpit as Columbia’s titular head. In May 2012, council refused by a one-vote margin to authorized a strong-mayor referendum. Just last week, Benjamin told The State that he doubts he has the votes on council now either and that he will support a petition drive to get the issue on the November ballot.

Wilson, generally measured in her public statements, bristled as council began discussing the ban. She continued discussing her reactions after council’s work session ended at the Eau Claire print building and responded further when reporters asked for her reaction.

Asked about Benjamin’s support for the ban, Wilson said, “I’ll just say I’m very disappointed. Very disappointed.”

“What this (proposed ban) is suggesting is that your mere presence is undue influence,” she said. “I didn’t exercise any undue influence. Dr. Randolph was still charged. Our officers exercised their judgments.”

Wilson said if she faced the same circumstances again, she would handle the situation the same way.

She said she drove to Tripp’s Fine Cleaning in Five Points that day because she was nearby when interim police chief Ruben Santiago called her from his home to alert her to the confrontation the NAACP head was having with an employee and officers who had been dispatched to the store.

Wilson and Santiago both have said they are familiar with the optometrist’s lifelong struggle with Type 1 diabetes and the effect it sometimes has on his actions. She described her decision as part of her “customer service” obligations to residents.

Wilson said she spoke with the Tripp’s employee, did not talk to officers who were handling the case and didn’t speak with Randolph, who already had been taken to a hospital. He was charged with the misdemeanor offenses of resisting arrest, disorderly conduct and trespassing and was struck by an officer while being taken into custody.

The city attorney’s office has not decided whether to go to trial, and the arresting officers have asked for a jury trial. To avoid any further allegations of favoritism, Randolph has asked a judge to assign a special prosecutor to his misdemeanor case or to have the city attorney’s office disqualified from trying the allegations.

Tuesday, councilwomen Tameika Isaac Devine and Leona Plaugh said Benjamin’s ban would have to define a crime scene.

Devine and Councilman Sam Davis, council’s most senior members, said they have been near crime scenes during their tenures to demonstrate concern and support for family and neighbors. Devine cited the 2004 double homicides of children from the T.S. Martin Park neighborhood near W.A. Perry Middle School.

She went to the neighborhood and spoke with residents and relatives of the victims but never crossed police crime-scene tape, spoke with officers or otherwise interfered with the investigation.

“From the way this reads,” Devine said of the proposed ban, “I’d be prohibited from going there at all.”

Plaugh pressed the mayor to explain his plan. “Could you tell us why this is necessary? What are we trying to address here?”

“Do we really need to have that discussion, Ms. Plaugh?” Benjamin said.

Councilman Brian DeQuincey Newman was the only member present who spoke on behalf of the ban, though he voted against it. “I don’t see this policy as something that creates a problem. I think it would prevent one.”

Councilman Cameron Runyan did not attend the public portion of council’s meeting Tuesday.

Wilson was hired by council in December on a split vote. Some on council said the then-assistant city manager was not experienced enough to hold the top post. Benjamin said Wilson’s experience with economic development and governmental affairs raised her above other candidates.

Critics, including Councilman Moe Baddourah, who is challenging Benjamin for the mayor’s seat, said the job description was changed to match her skills and experience. Baddourah accused the incumbent of pushing his friends for key city jobs.

Columbia’s personnel director said at the time that members of council had instructed her to make the change, but she did not spell out who told her to remove the job posting from the city’s website and to adjust the job description when it was posted a second time.

In her comments to council and to reporters after the meeting Tuesday, Wilson said if council wants to stop undue influence, the ban should be extended to contact after police leave the scene of a crime.

“Let’s make it fully comprehensive ... to what happens after the scene,” she said.

“If someone wants to be fully transparent, then we need to apply this certainly to staff, with law enforcement, with the judiciary or attorneys.”

Reach LeBlanc at (803) 771-8664.

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