EXCLUSIVE

Columbia forces for strong mayor starting petition drive

cleblanc@thestate.comAugust 21, 2013 

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

TIM DOMINICK/TDOMINICK@THESTATE.COM.

— A bipartisan, broad-based steering committee is being organized to run a petition drive to convert City Hall to a strong-mayor form of government, business and political officials told The State on Wednesday.

Meanwhile, supporters are in talks with an out-of-state firm to train a large cadre of volunteers who would fan out across the city to gather the necessary 11,000-plus, certifiable signatures, said Greater Columbia Chamber director Ike McLeese and Richard Quinn, owner of the political consulting firm Richard Quinn & Associates.

Democrat and former Gov. Jim Hodges and Republican former state Attorney General Henry McMaster have agreed to be two of the co-chairmen of the Columbia Citizens for Better Government group, McLeese, Quinn and McMaster confirmed. Efforts to reach Hodges were unsuccessful.

Recruitment of volunteers began Wednesday, said Quinn, who added that he attended one of the first organizational meetings Wednesday. A decision about hiring the firm from Georgia is likely within a week, McLeese and Quinn said.

Asked if the goal is to get a referendum on the Nov. 5 ballot that will include strong-mayor supporter and incumbent Mayor Steve Benjamin and three other City Council members, Quinn said, “It would take a miracle ... to have it done by November 5. The (Georgia-based petition) firm would have to come from Mount Olympus.”

As petition drive forces marshal their team, rumblings are surfacing about a push to defeat the petition as well as a government run by a strong mayor.

“We will do just that,” said state NAACP director Lonnie Randolph. “When has the chamber been in the best interest of all members of this community, historically, from an education perspective, from a business perspective?

“The form of government that we have is the most democratic form of government,” Randolph said. “It removes the dictatorial relationship that too often occurs (with strong mayors).”

McLeese and Quinn said their efforts are in the formative stages, but the intent is to gain support from a wide constituency. The petition drive steering committee might have as many as four co-chairs representing a range of constituents, they said.

“It will not be chamber centric,” McLeese said. “We are part of an emerging coalition.”

People who spoke in favor of a change in government at last week’s heated public hearing at the Eau Claire print building are to be the core of the group being recruited to end Columbia’s long tradition of a city manager/council form government.

Council refused by a one-vote margin to put the question before voters this fall. The only other option under the law is to mount a petition drive signed by 15 percent of registered voters that would force a referendum.

Critics call the current form of government ineffective, slow to respond and not accountable to voters, because the city manager is appointed by the elected council. Under the law, the manager is to make hiring and firing decisions and oversee day-to-day operations.

Under the strong-mayor form, an elected mayor would have those powers, plus be able to vote just as the other six council members do.

“This is a complex area of the law,” Quinn said, adding that is why the Georgia firm likely will be hired to train volunteers. He would not identify the company but said it worked in South Carolina last year to get candidates names onto ballots after a state Supreme Court ruling tossed 200-plus names off ballots across the Palmetto State.

“It’s not a matter of running around and getting signatures,” said Quinn, whose firm is working with the Benjamin re-election campaign. “You have to do this properly.”

Signatures might have to be certified by the election commissions in Richland County and Lexington County, he said. Portions of Columbia stretch to the shopping and restaurant corridor on and around Harbison Boulevard, portions of which are in Lexington County.

Those gathering signatures will be schooled on how to identify eligible voters, including those having proper voter identification, as well as on the timing of mailing ballots to military families, he said.

“I don’t think it’s going to be possible to have it on the November ballot, (but) we’re going to run full tilt to get as many signatures as soon as we can,” the longtime political strategist said.

A special election would have to be held, under the laws, if the requisite number of signatures are certified after Nov. 5.

Either way, the strong-mayor proponents said, they will argue to enforce a recent state Attorney General’s legal opinion that would allow the most recently elected mayor to assume the empowered role immediately after a referendum passes.

Yet Howard Duvall, the retired long-time director of the S.C. Municipal Association, said his reading of the law is that council would have to vote on the effective date.

Reach LeBlanc at (803) 771-8664.

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