Columbia business group starting petition campaign to get strong mayor on ballot

cleblanc@thestate.comAugust 15, 2013 

Mayor Steve Benjamin talks with youngster Charles Glenn III, 8, at Drew Park during the Let's Move! Easter Egg Hunt hosted by Columbia's first family March 29, 2013.

C. ALUKA BERRY — Buy Photo

— Proponents of a petition drive for a strong-mayor referendum hope to hammer out a strategy by the end of next week, an executive with the local chamber of commerce said Wednesday.

Business leaders will meet with neighborhood organizers, civic groups and the faith-based community to rouse a broad-based campaign, said Lee Bussell, chairman of the Greater Columbia Chamber of Commerce’s executive committee.

“We may move fast. We may be patient,” said Bussell, who on Tuesday told City Council the chamber would mount a petition drive if council refused to put a change of government option on the Nov. 5 ballot.

Council by a 4-3 vote refused to endorse a ballot question that pitted Mayor Steve Benjamin and councilmen Cameron Runyan and Brian DeQuincey Newman against council’s majority. Benjamin is the only one of those three who is facing re-election in the city’s first fall election.

Bussell characterized the chamber’s role as a facilitator in a petition drive that will need about 11,000 signatures from qualified registered voters. State law requires that at least 15 percent of registered voters sign before changing from the city’s traditional strong-manager/weak-mayor form of government can be placed before voters.

A decision has not been reached on whether to hurry so the question could be on the ballot within three months, Bussell said.

“If it happens, it happens,” he said. “But I can’t say that is our ultimate goal.”

Because state law requires that a petition drive be certified no sooner than 60 days or later than 30 days before an election, “It almost guarantees you would have to have a special election,” Bussell said. For the November election, that would be between early September and early October.

The chamber’s executive committee voted unanimously Aug. 6 to endorse a strong-mayor ballot question and to pursue a petition drive if council would not vote to place the issue on the November ballot, he said.

The chamber and other business organizations have supported the strong-mayor concept for years because they believe it would speed decision making that now is slowed by what they view as a plodding City Council. Group decisions leave no one person accountable, they argue.

Business leaders had been waiting for someone on council to lead the charge for a strong mayor, Bussell said.

“We’ve never had a champion for that. It’s got to be an insider,” he said. “It’s got to be a member of City Council. Now we have two,” Bussell said of Benjamin and Runyan.

Business groups also are encouraged by two recent polls that show broad support for a strong mayor system, Bussell said.

“I’m willing to say that we feel comfortable that if it’s on the ballot ... strong mayor should comfortably pass,” he said, declining to identify whose polls he saw.

Neither, he said, was conducted by the chamber, describing the polls only as from a political campaign and another business group. One was done the week of July 9, which is when council was in the spotlight on a final decision on public investment in the Bull Street neighborhood, which Benjamin pushed hard to approve, and the eruption of corruption allegations against the interim police chief.

Bussell was among 30-some people who spoke at Tuesday’s jammed public hearing about placing the change of government on the ballot.

Drama ran high during four hours of debate in the Eau Claire print building that held a standing-room-only crowd of more than 100. Speakers invoked City Council’s past when it was dominated by a whites-only group known as the “Shandon mafia.” Some likened a strong mayor to a dictator.

The tense atmosphere was punctuated by battles over parliamentary procedure and brought to a halt altogether when long-time civil rights advocate Adell Adams became ill and required medical attention.

Council members jousted over motions and substitute motions on the key question. It became so tangled that city attorney Ken Gaines deferred to what he called the “parliamentary expert” in the audience. That’s when former legislator and Richland County Councilwoman Candy Waites stepped to the podium to explain the order in which motions could be voted upon and which ones were out of order.

There were a few light moments, such as when former at-large Councilman Daniel Rickenmann called out Chapin resident Bussell, whose public relations firm operates in the city.

“I appreciate Mr. Bussell driving in all the way from Chapin to tell us about our form of government,” Rickenmann said to laughter.

Reach LeBlanc at (803) 771-8664.

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