Editorial: Columbia City Council should let the people decide on strong mayor

August 11, 2013 

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

TIM DOMINICK/TDOMINICK@THESTATE.COM.

— LET COLUMBIA voters, who choose a mayor based on his vision and plans for improving the city, also decide whether they want that leader to be empowered to bring about the change they elect him to make.

Let the people decide seems like a reasonable request, but it’s one Columbia City Council has refused to grant. Some on the council, leaning on anecdotal evidence, have steadfastly declared that citizens don’t want a strong mayor, while rejecting results of at least two separate polls showing strong support from across the city. But there’s one sure way to know the people’s will: Put a referendum the November ballot asking voters whether they want to replace the council-manager structure with a strong mayor system.

Under council-manager, the council sets policy, approves ordinances, adopts a budget and hires a city manager to oversee daily operations. Among the city manager’s duties is the responsibility for hiring and firing employees, including the police chief.

Under strong mayor — or mayor-council — the mayor oversees daily operations, hiring and firing and the preparation of a budget for council approval.

We long have believed that empowering an elected executive — whether it’s the mayor of Columbia or the governor of South Carolina — is the most accountable way to run government.

Council-manager is anti-accountability: No one is in charge. The unaccountable, unelected city manager answers to seven bosses. Authority is diffused among the mayor and six council members, allowing all to claim a lack of power when things go wrong. The decision-making process is slow and plodding, making it difficult — and at times impossible — for the city to take advantage of time-sensitive opportunities.

A strong mayor would be able to manage city personnel and resources in a manner that helps bring about the vision voters affirm via an election. Not only that, but the mayor would be dedicated to Columbia, not working an outside job that could require the city’s top elected official to recuse himself from discussions and votes on public affairs. Everyone would know that when the ball is dropped, the buck stops with the mayor. If something goes wrong — whether at the Police Department or in the finance department — the mayor won’t have the luxury of sitting on it; he’ll have to fix it quickly, knowing voters will evaluate him at the polls.

Some believe strong mayor would create too strong an executive and possibly invite corruption. But an active council and engaged electorate would serve as checks.

On Tuesday, City Council is expected to discuss — and possibly vote on — placing this matter on the November ballot. Regardless of how council members feel, the question before them isn’t whether the city should change its form of government. It’s whether to let voters decide the kind of government they want to live under.

Council members need to put this on the ballot. Once they do, they are free to join what is sure to be vigorous, engaging debate leading up to the vote.

While we prefer strong mayor, we also trust letting the people decide.

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