Bolton: Columbia’s mayor doesn’t have to stay powerless

Associate EditorSeptember 8, 2013 

Warren Bolton

TIM DOMINICK/TDOMINICK@THESTATE.

— WHY IS Columbia’s mayor powerless?

That was one of the first things that a couple new to Columbia asked me last week.

The two had lived in cities in other states where the mayor has executive authority. How can the city get anything done without an empowered executive, they asked. (Eventually, they would ask the same question about our state: How can it operate effectively when the governor isn’t afforded adequate and appropriate executive power?)

I don’t know if they learned anything from our conversation, but I certainly took something away from it: It doesn’t take long to realize that Columbia’s council-manager form of government is lacking.

That’s not the first time I’ve heard a newcomer raise the question.

Several years back, I sat in a room full of local business leaders concerned about the direction of the city; they were strategizing about how they could help strengthen the city’s leadership and enhance its progress. One banker new to town said the city he had recently arrived from had a strong mayor — because of both the form of government and force of will — empowered to help get things rolling, whether they related to economic development or community improvement. He hadn’t been in Columbia long, but he already had learned that there was no one in city government empowered to make decisions. The city’s diffused governing structure saw to that.

Not long ago, a Richland County Council member told me that top executives looking to move to the area don’t want to talk with city or county council members; they want to sit down with the mayor.

But they soon find out that the mayor has no real power to make decisions or even assure prospects that the city will be open to making a deal. No matter how wonderful an idea a mayor might have, it’s merely a suggestion when it makes it to the council’s chambers. That’s because the mayor is simply a glorified council member who presides over meetings and attends ribbon cuttings.

Under the current system, it’s the unelected city manager who runs daily operations, not the mayor. And the manager takes her direction from the entire council, not just the mayor. When it comes to setting policy and charting a direction for the city, its the entire council’s job, although you’d be hard-pressed to determine what the city’s strategic vision is.

Columbia needs a full-time mayor who can choose his top administrator and take responsibility for day-to-day operations and the hiring of other staff. He would be accountable to voters and would be expected to articulate and promote a long-term vision for the city as well as putting himself on the line every day to ensure the city’s business was in order.

That’s why the petition campaign collecting signatures to place a question on the ballot asking whether the city should be led by an empowered full-time mayor is so important. City voters should not only sign their names but work to get others signed up as well. Organizers say they have about half of the more than 11,000 signatures they need so far.

I believe that, given the opportunity, Columbians would vote for change. Many of them see the same need some newcomers do.

Columbians have seen the administrative and financial woes that no one ever really took responsibility for. They’ve seen the general disarray at the Police Department and the revolving door at the chief’s office. They’ve seen mayors forced to sit out important votes and discussions about matters key to the life of the city because they have outside jobs that require them to recuse themselves.

A government study commission the council appointed to examine Columbia’s form of government and make recommendations back in 2004-2005 saw the many weaknesses in the council-manager structure. While it took far too long to make a report — nearly three years — the commission acknowledged that Columbia’s government is broken.

Commission members accused City Council of not operating properly under the council-manager form. They said the council micromanaged operations, asked staff for favors for constituents and pressured the city manager to help friends and political allies. The panel found that no one was looking out for the overall vision of how the city should grow, and noted the difficulty the city manager has answering to seven bosses. But the panel was stacked with people who opposed strong mayor, and it made no recommendation.

There is a remedy. The answer lies in the form of a strong mayor, who would serve as the chief executive of the city.

Even under the current system, many voters choose a mayor thinking that they are giving that person the ability to run the city and implement the vision and plans he talks about during their campaign. They see the mayor as more powerful than a council member.

They’re wrong. But it’s time to make them right.

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

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