Columbia government

Benjamin says he would work full time as Columbia’s mayor if referendum passes

ccope@thestate.comSeptember 13, 2013 

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A press conference at the law offices of Eric Bland brought out representatives in favor of the plan the city is pushing, and those who opposed it. Those in opposition were asked to leave the property. Here Mayor Steve Benjamin addresses the media.

TRACY GLANTZ — tglantz@thestate.com Buy Photo

Columbia Mayor Steve Benjamin is prepared to quit his job as a lawyer at a local firm to become the city’s first full-time mayor, he said Thursday.

“It’s a full-time job, and anybody who commits should be willing to do it as a full-time job,” said Benjamin, who is completing his first term and has been the key proponent of changing the form of government to strong-mayor.

If voters were to approve a change to the strong-mayor form, Benjamin said he would want to concentrate all of his energies on the new job, which would include managing the city’s day-to-day affairs, hiring and firing employees and submitting an annual budget for council’s consideration. The city manager currently does those things.

Benjamin estimates he works 60 hours a week in the mayor’s role already. He receives a $17,500 salary plus an expense account.

But having a strong mayor doesn’t automatically translate into having a “full-time” mayor.

Councilwoman Tameika Isaac Devine, who consistently has voted against putting the strong-mayor question on a ballot, said at Wednesday’s meeting that nothing would ban Benjamin from changing his mind.

“If he wants to be counsel to a law firm, we can’t prohibit it,” Devine, herself a lawyer, said of council’s lack of authority under a strong-mayor system.

Mayors in a city with the strong-mayor form of government, by law, can hold a job on the side, said Howard Duvall, the former executive director of the Municipal Association of South Carolina.

Charleston and North Charleston are the largest cities in South Carolina that have adopted a strong-mayor form.

Charleston’s Joe Riley, who like Benjamin is a lawyer, is a full-time mayor making $162,816 a year, according to his office. North Charleston’s mayor, Keith Summey, is paid $148,905 for his full-time mayoral duties.

Wednesday, City Council is scheduled to consider final approval for holding a referendum on a change of government during the Nov. 5 election. On Wednesday, in council’s third attempt within 18 months at approving a council-authorized referendum, the body voted 4-3 to place the issue on the ballot.

Legally, Benjamin could keep his private job at Parker Poe law firm on Main Street, council members were told last week by city attorney Ken Gaines.

“There is nothing which prohibits the mayor from being privately employed while serving as mayor under the mayor-council form of government,” Gaines wrote in a Sept. 4 email to City Council members. “Many of the mayors who serve under the mayor-council form of government in the smaller municipalities are privately employed during their term.”

Mayor-council is the legal name for a strong-mayor form of government.

Of the state’s 270 cities, 145 have a strong-mayor structure. The majority of those – 91 of the 145 – are towns with populations of fewer than 1,000 people, said Scott Slatton, legislative and public policy advocate for the Municipal Association of South Carolina.

Of the 16 cities in the state with populations of 25,000 or more, three have adopted the strong-mayor form of government: Charleston, North Charleston and Goose Creek, the association said.

“I would venture to say many, if not most, of those mayors do work or have part-time jobs,” Slatton said.

While Benjamin may be willing to give up his job, he said he’s not willing to give up his law license, citing a career that spans almost 20 years.

The first-term mayor is up for re-election on Nov. 5 and has two opponents – Councilman Moe Baddourah and Larry Sypolt, a former Richland County deputy and narcotics detective.

The two businessmen say they will keep their businesses if elected mayor but would not manage them day to day.

Baddourah, who is a restaurateur and businessman, said being mayor would be his full commitment.

“I will put mayor before anything else besides my family,” he said.

He will have staff running his restaurant like he already does, said RJ Shealy, the councilman’s campaign director.

Baddourah now opposes the strong-mayor form of government after saying he supported it during his campaign last year to be the District 3 representative. But if elected, and the city’s form of government changes, he would serve as a strong mayor, he said.

Sypolt, who supports the strong-mayor form of government, said he, too, would want to be a full-time mayor.

“I would certainly embrace that position and work full time and devote all my time and energy to making our city better for everybody,” he said.

Sypolt, a businessman in Forest Acres, said he would hire staff to run his two businesses, one of them a background-check and drug testing company, the other a non-medical, home care company.

“I want to make certain that everybody understands my companies would never benefit from me being in office,” Sypolt said.

Sypolt said strong mayors should be limited to two terms, and if that were the case he would have his businesses for an income for once the terms were over. But state law has no such legal limitation.

Staff writer Clif LeBlanc contributed.

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