Columbia city council

Columbia City Council votes not to put strong mayor referendum on Nov. ballot

cleblanc@thestate.comAugust 13, 2013 

Mayor Steve Benjamin

TIM DOMINICK — tdominick@thestate.com Buy Photo

  • Hiring a police chief

    City Council might hire a national firm to help select a new police chief. Council will make a final decision after the city manager calculates the cost of bringing in a professional search firm.

    That would mean the search no longer would be left to city manager Teresa Wilson, who normally makes hiring decisions.

— Columbia City Council on Tuesday night voted against putting a strong mayor form of government question in front of voters in November.

The measure failed on a 4-3 vote, with Mayor Steve Benjamin and councilmen Cameron Runyan and Brian Newman voting “yes.” Tameika Isaac Devine, Leona Plaugh, Sam Davis and Moe Baddourah, who is running against Benjamin for mayor this fall, were opposed.

Those voting “no” cited a lack of a groundswell for a vote and a rush for a vote in the middle of an election campaign.

Council’s second rejection within 15 months – the last was in May 2012 – likely will trigger a petition campaign to get the referendum on the same ballot where voters will select a mayor and three other council members.

Lee Bussell, chairman of the Greater Columbia Chamber of Commerce, told council during a four-hour public hearing, “If you don’t (approve a referendum), we intend to move forward with a petition.”

Bussell, it seems, will have help.

If council didn’t approve a referendum, Benjamin told The State newspaper in late July, he would 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.

The vote followed often heated exchanges among council members, especially with Benjamin, who has long backed a strong-mayor form of government and has made it part of his re-election campaign.

Many speakers, including some on council, made clear that a referendum would not change the city’s 4-2-1 makeup of council. That system, adopted in 1982, cleared the way for the first representatives of Columbia’s African-American residents. That structure is four single-member geographic districts, two citywide or at-large districts and one mayor, also elected citywide.

Many of the 30-plus speakers who addressed a standing-room-only crowd in the Eau Claire print building called on council to postpone a referendum. Some advocated quick action, saying the issue has been debated for years.

Others, like former longtime municipal specialist Howard Duvall, insisted the form of government doesn’t need changing from the current strong-manager system.

“It’s a perfect form for Columbia, although it has been implemented imperfectly,” Duvall said.

The Columbia chapter of the NAACP’s executive committee voted unanimously against a change, a spokeswoman for the civil rights organization said.

Supporters of the idea of letting residents vote on whether to have a full-time mayor, rather than a strong city manager form of government, waved signs before the meeting. “Let us vote,” the signs said.

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

Voting “no” were council members Davis, Devine, Plaugh and then-at-large representative Daniel Rickenmann.

The “yes” votes were Benjamin, Newman and then District 3 representative Belinda Gergel.

Baddourah, who once supported a strong-mayor form of government, has changed his mind and said he would oppose that change.

Benjamin has intensified his longstanding call for a change to a strong mayor as the November campaign season has grown more heated.

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 power point presentation Scott Slatton of the Municipal Association of South Carolina made Tuesday.

City Council adopted the current form of government, which has a strong manager, on Sept. 17, 1975, according to records in the city clerk’s office, which show the ordinance bears the signature of then-Mayor John T. Campbell.

Thirty-eight years ago, council selected that form, which state law calls a “council-manager” form, because it is closest to the form of government in Columbia before the Legislature adopted the Home Rule Act. That law defined powers of municipal and county councils and stripped much of the pocketbook power that had been vested in state senators and House members.

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 power point showed.

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.”

Hiring a police chief

City Council might hire a national firm to help select a new police chief. Council will make a final decision after the city manager calculates the cost of bringing in a professional search firm.

That would mean the search no longer would be left to city manager Teresa Wilson, who normally makes hiring decisions.

Reach LeBlanc at (803) 771-8664.

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