Columbia council to vote Tuesday on strong-mayor referendum

cleblanc@thestate.comAugust 12, 2013 

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


  • Other issues Columbia City Council on Tuesday will take up a host of high-interest issues. Here are some of the key items on the agenda.

    Homelessness. Council is to discuss a proposal to centralize services at the city’s winter shelter and covert the shelter into a 24/7 operation for seven months starting Sept. 1. Council also will hear a report from a citizens committee that has been studying the homelessness issue in Columbia for a year.

    Public debt. Council will decide whether to approve $11.7 million in new general obligation bonds that would pay for equipment purchases and allot up to $5 million for use to install infrastructure on the Bull Street property. If council OKs the issuance, the city would be at its capacity for general obligation bonds.

    Hiring a police chief. City manager Teresa Wilson will update council on the search for a new chief.

    If you go The Bull Street and Palmetto Compress matters are on a work session agenda. The remaining issues are on council’s regular meeting agenda. Work session

    When: 2 p.m.

    Where: Former Eau Claire town hall, 3905 Ensor Ave. at Monticello Road.

    Council meeting

    When: 6 p.m.

    Where: Next door at the Eau Claire print building, 3907 Ensor Ave. at Monticello Road.

The politically hot issue of changing the capital city’s form of government for the first time in nearly 40 years comes before Columbia City Council Tuesday for a second time within 15 months.

A May 8, 2012, effort to put the issue of a strong mayor before voters failed by one vote.

Mayor Steve Benjamin again is pushing hard to get the controversial matter onto the Nov. 5 ballot, which also has his name and that of three other council members who are facing re-election.

Yet the only alternative to the current strong-manager form he and Councilman Cameron Runyan – who is to make the motion for a referendum – want to offer voters is a strong-mayor option. State law allows a third choice: a strong council form.

Benjamin has intensified his longstanding call to for a change to a strong mayor as campaign season has grown more heated. In an email Monday, he called the strong-manager form “dysfunctional” and blasted those on council who want public forums before a vote for a referendum.

“You see, what should be a very simple decision – to give voters a voice at the ballot box – is being bogged down by political delay tactics,” Benjamin wrote. “To me that simply highlights the dysfunctional nature of the current system.”

Columbians are voting this fall because a year ago council moved the city’s traditional April election to November. That action switched Columbia to odd-year elections and shortened by six months the terms of all members.

A strong-mayor form, known in the law as the “mayor-council” form, vests the mayor with hiring and firing power, the authority to run day-to-day operations as well as to propose a budget to council and submit reports on the city’s finances and the operation of departments, according to a presentation Scott Slatton of the Municipal Association of South Carolina is making Tuesday.

A strong manager, legally known as the council-manager form, gets his or her authority from state law. That law bars council members, including the mayor, from interfering with the operation of city departments or dealing directly with city employees.

The mayor is one vote on council and derives the role of presiding over meetings and as city spokesperson from tradition, not from the law, Slatton’s presentation shows.

Under the strong council form, which the law calls the “council form,” the elected council has the legislative and administrative muscle. It creates the departments of city government, hires city employees, and appoints judges, city attorneys and a city clerk. That form allows the council to hire an administrator and determine the authority of the administrator.

State law gives council the bottom line authority in all forms of municipal government, Slatton said.

“In all three forms, it’s the council that has responsibility for all the things that take place in a city,” he said. “It has the ultimate authority and oversight in all three forms.”

Slatton is to explain the forms at Tuesday’s public hearing and council vote, which is scheduled at the beginning of the 6 p.m. meeting at the Eau Claire print building.

Should council again refuse to put a change of government on the November ballot, Benjamin told The State newspaper in late July that he will support a petition drive to get the choice onto the Nov. 5 ballot. State law permits that path if at least 15 percent of registered voters sign a petition.

Reach LeBlanc at (803) 771-8664.

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