Bolton: Why The State’s editorial board is pushing so hard on strong-mayor petition effort

Associate EditorSeptember 6, 2013 

Warren Bolton

TIM DOMINICK/TDOMINICK@THESTATE.

NO DOUBT you noticed that we took the unusual step today of publishing an editorial on the front page supporting a Columbia referendum on strong mayor, rather than placing it on this page, where it normally would appear.

That’s because we think it’s incredibly important for Columbia’s voters to have their say on whether an empowered, full-time mayor should lead our capital city.

It’s our hope that voters not only place the matter on the ballot but also approve a change from the council-manager form of government to a strong-mayor system. But one step at a time.

We’re not pushing for change simply for the sake of change. It’s not about Mayor Steve Benjamin or any one personality. And, no, we’re not out to be kingmakers.

The fact is that we long have supported Columbia being under the leadership of an empowered elected executive, just as we have trumpeted over and over the need for South Carolina to be led by an empowered governor. It’s a notion we’ve shouted about in columns and editorials for years in an effort to get leaders to adopt accountable, effective structures.

Today, we decided to raise our voices a little bit louder by placing the editorial on Columbia’s form of government on the front page.

Editorials reflect the consensus of the newspaper’s editorial board, which is composed of president and publisher Henry Haitz, vice president and executive news editor Mark Lett, associate editor Cindi Scoppe and me. Since they represent the collective voice of the paper, editorials, unlike columns, are not signed. What you are reading now is indeed a column, which expresses the writer’s individual perspective — in this case, mine.

While placing an editorial on the front page is a more unconventional act than we’ve taken before, the fact that we’re willing to stake out a position and then vigorously pursue our preferred outcome shouldn’t shock anyone. Over the past decade and a half, this editorial board has aggressively opposed video poker and the lottery, campaigned for the removal of the Confederate flag from the State House dome and pushed for comprehensive tax reform, among other things. Locally, we have called for the consolidation of city and county services and more regional cooperation — and a change in Columbia’s form of government.

We turned up the volume on the issue of strong mayor— and will do so again over the next couple of weeks — in an effort to get the citizens engaged in this important discussion, which is occurring at a critical juncture in the city’s history: Columbia is poised to take off and become not simply that good city that people like to visit and raise their kids in, but that great city that compels people to move their families and relocate job- and tax-producing companies to.

Just consider the resurgence of downtown, the developing riverfront, the explosion of USC and its research campus, the redevelopment of the State Hospital site on Bull Street, and the many other initiatives percolating in our capital city, and you can’t help but acknowledge the tremendous potential before us.

But there’s one problem: The city’s indecisive government structure is far more capable of squandering this opportunity than it is of hitting a home run. Columbia’s current council-manager form of government isn’t capable of supporting and promoting high-level, positive change. It diffuses power among the mayor, six council members and the city manager and often makes it difficult — if not impossible — to reach the definitive, timely decisions needed to take advantage of the many opportunities sure to come our way.

We also decided to get more involved because we don’t know when a more opportune time might arise. A majority of City Council — Sam Davis, Tameika Isaac Devine, Leona Plaugh and Moe Baddourah — have made it clear they like the status quo that places them on equal footing with the mayor. That foursome outvoted Mayor Benjamin and council members Brian DeQuincey Newman and Cameron Runyan to defeat a proposal to place a referendum on the Nov. 5 ballot.

At various times over the years, community leaders have threatened to lead a petition drive if City Council refused to allow a vote. But no such effort ever materialized, despite the council’s continual refusal to even consider the issue. This time is different.

Business and community leaders of both parties, including former Gov. Jim Hodges and former Attorney General Henry McMaster, understand the importance of giving voters the opportunity to choose change — or not — and are leading the charge. And unlike his predecessor who also supported the city having a strong-mayor system, Mayor Benjamin is out front championing this issue.

Given the broad and growing support and the crucial timing, how can we not aggressively push an idea that we have owned for more than 15 years? Our city might not have another opportunity like this one.

We have an obligation not only to encourage dialogue on this matter, but to clearly and openly express our position. It is our job to encourage and provoke people to get engaged in their community and government.

For years, we have observed, dissected and commented on every aspect of Columbia city government — from its leadership to its economic development efforts to its annexation policy to the struggles of the Police Department to its financial woes and taxing and spending policy to its overall decision-making.

While there has been success and advancement, the fact is that it has been far too slow. And we often have pointed out why: Columbia’s slow-moving, indecisive and unaccountable council-manager form of government is broken and needs fixing.

Over the next few weeks, we will be telling Columbia voters, in as clear a way as possible, why it is important for them to sign the petition that would allow them to vote to change the form of their government from weak mayor to strong mayor. Along the way, we will explain why we believe that Columbia would be better served by the strong-mayor structure.

We know that not all of our readers will agree with our position. But it is our sincere hope that our arguments help people make sense of the issue, think deeper about it and, eventually, sign the petition so that voters might be heard, once and for all.

Reach Mr. Bolton at (803) 771-8631 or wbolton@thestate.com.

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