Columbia City Council reverses itself, votes to put strong mayor question on ballot

cleblanc@thestate.comSeptember 11, 2013 

  • What likely will be on the Nov. 5 ballot Proposed language of referendum to change Columbia’s traditional strong-manager form to a strong-mayor system:

    “Shall the municipality of the City of Columbia change its form of government from Council-manager form to Mayor-Council form?

    Residents would cast “yes” or “no” votes.

Columbia City Council’s most senior member on Wednesday reversed himself and cleared the way for a historic referendum to allow residents to decide on Nov. 5 whether to approve a strong-mayor form of government.

“The (citizens’) petition neutralized me,” said Councilman Sam Davis, a longtime opponent of a council-authorized referendum on changing Columbia’s tradition of a strong-manager form of government. “That petition said the voters have said we want to vote.”

“I’m not going to be perceived as someone who opposed a petition,” Davis said before council voted 4-3 to place the issue on the same ballot that also could elect the capital city’s first mayor empowered with administrative authority to run day-to-day operations and hire and fire all 2,300 city workers.

Council must vote a second time to finalize Wednesday’s razor-thin decision – which flips by a similar one-vote margin two previous votes by council within the past 18 months that defeated a referendum. The final, binding vote is scheduled for Wednesday of next week and the wording of the ordinance approved tentatively after nearly two hours of heated debate could change.

Even if council casts that final vote next week, Richland County election officials still will be under a tight deadline – possibly two days – to get ballots ready, especially those that must be mailed to absentee voters out of state or out of the country, city attorney Ken Gaines told council.

Joining Davis in voting for a council-authorized referendum were Mayor Steve Benjamin and councilmen Brian DeQuincey Newman and Cameron Runyan. Voting no after two hours of often heated debate were councilwomen Tameika Isaac Devine and Leona Plaugh and Councilman Moe Baddourah.

Asked whether, after three attempts, he considered the vote a personal victory, Benjamin said, “This is a victory for the people of Columbia. This is a victory for democracy. This is a victory for accountability.

“It is not in this council’s ability to shut down this debate,” said Benjamin, who made history in becoming Columbia’s first African-American mayor and is seeking a second term.

The mayor repeatedly raised the cost of delaying a decision. If council waited much longer, election officials would likely have to schedule a special election, which Benjamin said could cost more than $150,000.

Davis repeatedly said the outcome of the petition drive, which was triggered by council’s most recent refusal to approve a referendum, swayed his vote.

A three-week-long, controversial campaign that included hiring a company from Georgia produced 19,000 to 20,000 signatures. Petition organizers say that about 12,500 of those signatures will be shown to have come from eligible voters who live in the city limits.

Only Richland County elections officials may, by law, certify which signatures would meet the state standard of 15 percent of registered voters to force a referendum if council does not schedule one on its own. That number is estimated to be 11,063.

State law mandates that if 15 percent of eligible registered voters sign a petition, city councils must put the issue on the ballot.

County elections director Howard Jackson said Wednesday that certification is likely to be completed on Monday, Gaines and city manager Teresa Wilson told council at a specially-called meeting Wednesday in the Eau Claire print building. At one point during the meeting, some council members asked to get Jackson on the phone so he could answer questions.

Council’s vote will not stop Richland County election officials from working to certify signatures on the petition, several council members said.

Devine said voters who signed the petition were misled and some have told her they did not understand what they were signing.

“It continues to be spun that we don’t want the voters to vote,” she said. “I’m not sure that when you put a petition before people and they don’t know what they’re signing, that’s not the voices of the voters. We are effectively silencing all voters every which way by not having a (educational) dialogue ... an honest dialogue.”

As she did the last time council voted, Devine said an extensive public education campaign needs to be organized so that voters can learn about the differences between the current and strong-mayor forms of government.

Plaugh, who returned from her vacation trip to the beach to attend Wednesday’s meeting, called the vote “a mammoth decision.” She and pressed council to wait until after certification is completed. “It shouldn’t be done in an emergency meeting of City Council,” Plaugh said. “Is this the type of leadership we can expect in the future?”

She also shot back at Benjamin’s remarks about wasting money on a separate election that he said could be used to buy, for example, 275 protective vests for police officers or set up a portable kitchen at the city’s homeless shelter.

“While we could spend the money in other ways,” Plaugh said, “we’ve chosen to spend $7 million on the Palmetto Compress.” She is referring to Benjamin’s push earlier this to have the city buy the aging former cotton warehouse and try to have it redeveloped.

Baddourah, who is opposing Benjamin in the fall election, said that forcing council to commit before the petition is certified, is “shoving it down (voters’) throats.”

“This is going to continue the mistrust between the citizens and the government of Columbia,” Baddourah said.

Benjamin, who did almost all the talking in favor of a council-authorized referendum, drove home the meaning of 12,533 certifiable signatures.

He read a list that showed that number to far exceed the votes any sitting member of council received in their most recent campaigns: 11,371 more than Newman; 10,689 more than Baddourah; 9,634 more than Davis; 9,215 more than Plaugh; 7,657 more than Runyan; 3,506 more than Devine; 1,639 more than Benjamin.

“The people have spoken and there will be a referendum,” Benjamin said of the petition. “The issue before us is how much is it going to cost?

“The question is whether city leadership is going to be pulled kicking and screaming into that (referendum) process.”

Reach LeBlanc at (803) 771-8664.

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