Columbia government

Columbia’s strong mayor issue won’t make fall ballot

jmonk@thestate.comSeptember 4, 2013 

  • Wording of the petition The wording on the petition being circulated for signatures:

    I support the proposal to let the voters decide in a referendum whether the City of Columbia wants a “weak mayor” (Council–Manager) form of government or a “strong mayor” (Mayor–Council) form of government.

— A massive drive to collect signatures to force a referendum on a strong-mayor form of government in Columbia won’t get the 11,000-plus signatures needed to put the issue on the Nov. 5 ballot.

Any special election to let voters decide the strong mayor question now almost certainly will be held after Jan. 1.

Petition drive organizers said Wednesday that about 5,000 or so verified registered city voters have signed the petition calling for a referendum.

Under state law, they have to have signatures of 11,500-plus city residents, or 15 percent of the city’s 75,000 or so registered voters.

“We started two weeks ago, and we never entertained any illusions we would (quickly) hit the magic number of 11,500 signatures,” said Greater Columbia Chamber of Commerce president and CEO Ike McLeese, one of the leaders in the drive to put the strong mayor form of government question on the ballot.

McLeese said the target date for getting 11,500 signatures of registered voters is now the end of October.

“We are very confident we will eventually get the number of required signatures,” he said.

Friday at 5 p.m. is the deadline for submitting signatures to put a question on the Nov. 5 ballot, according to Richland County Elections director Howard Jackson. Nov. 5 is the date for the city’s election, the first to be held in the fall, as well as a Richland County referendum on increased library funding. In the city, the mayor’s post, held by Steve Benjamin, and three council seats – held by Sam Davis, Leona Plaugh, and Tameika Isaac Devine – are up for election. Each of the incumbents has at least one announced opponent.

McLeese said the signature gathering is “a slow and tedious process.”

“You would be surprised at the number of people who because they get their mail addressed to them as Columbia believe they actually live in the city limits of Columbia,” he said.

Each night, when the signatures collected by the several dozen volunteers scattered around the city are matched up with city voting rolls, it turns out that many people signing the petitions aren’t eligible.

“We have a verification rate that is running slightly over 50 percent,” McLeese said. “It slows down the process.”

Although petition signers are being screened by the petition organizers, the Richland County Election Commission, as required by state law, also must verify that the people signing the petition are registered city voters. Several city precincts are under the jurisdiction of the Lexington County Election Commission, which will verify any signatures collected from city voters in those precincts.

A date for a special election would have to be set by City Council.

Marci Andino, executive director of the State Election Commission, said City Council has not less than 30 days and not more than 90 days to set a date after receiving a petition with enough verified signatures.

Right now, the organizers’ goal is to collect as many valid signatures as they can.

Other difficulties in collecting signatures include the volunteers having to explain the purpose of a referendum.

“People here are just not accustomed to referendums. In California, you do it all the time,” McLeese said.

On any given day, some 40 volunteers, including community activists, are working “somewhere in the city” to gather petitions, McLeese said.

The volunteers are setting up stations in front of places like the Richland County Public Library’s main branch or at the University of South Carolina-North Carolina football game. They also are going door-to-door in various neighborhoods.

“You try to make it as easy as possible for people to have access to the petition,” McLeese said.

Benjamin called for the petition drive after two pushes to get City Council to put the referendum on the Nov. 5 ballot. He lost both times in close votes.

The chamber has been a key player in the petition drive. It long has been a proponent of a strong-mayor form of government, in which the mayor serves full time, operates the day-to-day business of the city, proposes a budget to City Council and hires and fires city employees.

Under the current form of government, the city manager, who is appointed by City Council, does those things. Critics say getting seven council members to agree on something is a slow and plodding process not suited for the 21st century. Opponents include the NAACP as well as many neighborhood leaders, who are against consolidating power in one elected official who may or may not be responsive to them.

A small cadre of professional petitioner organizers, a Georgia outfit called National Ballot Access, is overseeing the volunteer effort.

“They’ve worked with people of all different persuasions,” McLeese said.

Money to pay the organizers came “from various businesses and individuals,” he said.

Under state law, the petition has to be presented to the Richland County Election Commission within six months of collecting the first signature.

Even though the petition drive has achieved half its goal in only two weeks, “We are moving as fast as we can,” McLeese said.

Consultant Richard Quinn, who helped put together the petition, said: “I’m very pleased at the progress we are making. We have far more signatures than I would have thought.”

Staff writer Adam Beam contributed.

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