City Hall leaders are positioning Columbia’s municipal government for a strong mayor even as the idea of such an historic change continues to roil many in the community.
First, the city attorney’s office got a legal opinion last year from the state that reversed decades of legal advice on how quickly a strong mayor could take over. The S.C. Attorney General’s office advised that changes in a form of government can take effect as soon as a strong-mayor referendum is passed. That overturned three decades of advisory opinions from the attorney general’s office to all S.C. cities that any such change would have to wait the next election cycle after a change was made.
Last week, City Council reversed two previous votes and gave tentative approval to putting a strong-mayor referendum on the Nov. 5 ballot. That decision was driven by the news that a three-week-long petition drive had drawn thousands of signatures — enough, perhaps, to force the question onto the ballot regardless of what council did.
This week, City Council — again on the advice of the city attorney — is poised to vote on the salary for a new chief executive for Columbia. City attorney Ken Gaines has advised council to vote on the salary before the fall election; otherwise, state law would prohibit any salary changes from taking effect until Jan. 1, 2016, after the next city election, in 2015.
“I wish I could say there was some grand plan or grand design, but there wasn’t,” said Mayor Steve Benjamin, who is running for re-election and has spearheaded the push for a referendum and helped with the petition drive. He also is the target of much of the criticism and praise for a change.
A CHANGE BEGINS
The move toward changing the city’s strong-manager, or council-manager, form of government began to gain traction last year, about two months after City Council’s March 2012 refusal to agree to a referendum.
Gaines then wrote a second time to the attorney general’s office seeking legal advice on a range of questions dealing with changing the city’s form of government. In 2010, that office had advised Gaines the same way it had instructed other municipalities dating back to 1979: Changes in forms of government take effect in the election cycle after the change is authorized by voters.
Yet Gaines, in a hand-delivered letter dated May 11, 2012, said his review of state law questioned prior opinions.
Exactly one month later, Attorney General Alan Wilson’s office changed its mind after officials said they had done further research.
“... We hereby overrule our opinion of March 17, 2010, and decline to follow those previous opinions of this office,” assistant attorney general Dana Hofferber wrote in a nine-page opinion. “It is the policy of this office not to supersede or invalidate a prior opinion unless it is clearly erroneous. ... ”
Benjamin brought the issue of a council-authorized referendum back before council Aug. 13 after hearing another chorus of from citizens — most opposing a change to the city’s tradition of a strong city manager hired by council members.
For a second time, council said “no” by a one-vote margin, with several members saying there was no groundswell of support for it. Several neighborhood leaders had spoken against it. So had the NAACP. A leader with the Greater Columbia Chamber of Commerce warned council in that long, heated meeting that if it did not let voters decide, the chamber would help launch a petition drive.
Richland County election officials are working this week to certify whether the petition submitted has the required number of signatures from eligible voters — about 11,000.
Council, meanwhile, is to meet Wednesday to decide whether to give second and final approval to a referendum, regardless of the outcome of the certification process.
Pros and cons
Benjamin said his support for a strong mayor comes down to accountability.
“Voters need to know exactly where the buck stops when things happen or they don’t happen,” he said. “When things fall apart, it’s important that voters know who to hold accountable. It wasn’t very long ago that the city couldn’t close its books, and citizens didn’t know where to assign blame.”
Placing blame is just as diffuse with the recent turmoil in the police department, he said. The long-troubled department lost its chief to stress and finds its interim chief under a cloud of misconduct allegations.
Councilwoman Tameika Isaac Devine, who has repeatedly voted against a council-authorized referendum until voters can be educated about the implications of such a change, said, “I can’t honestly see a strong benefit to a strong mayor.”
Devine once said she decided against running for mayor because she had as much authority in her role as a citywide, rather than a district, representative.
She worries that a strong mayor would further politicize City Hall with cronyism. “Who’s to say the mayor is not going to jump on something that a huge campaign contributor wants over that of a regular citizen?”
Devine said a city manager hired by council has to answer to all seven council members and their constituents. An elected strong mayor with the power to hire and fire city workers and approve permits and some contracts could be swayed by political donors, she said.
Benjamin countered, “I’m curious to see how that is different than the current form of government where you have seven council members calling to check on the permits for their campaign contributors.”
Devine also rejects assertions that a strong mayor can act faster than a city manager.
“If he can,” she said of Benjamin as a strong mayor, “the same can be true for the city manager.”
Devine said the city already is pushing for staffers to make decisions faster in response to a study done last year by business leaders that criticized lengthy forms and procedures.
“We’re already working on that,” Devine said. “In practice, I don’t know how they think it’s going to change under a strong mayor.”
Councilman Moe Baddourah, who is opposing Benjamin in the city’s first autumn election, has accused the incumbent of politicizing the referendum process.
Who stands to gain?
Former two-term City Councilman Daniel Rickenmann opposed a strong-mayor system while he was on council and since he stepped down last year. He voted against a council-authorized referendum when council rejected it in March 2012.
“Strong mayor does not mean things are going to move swifter,” Rickenmann said last week. “It means people are only going to have to influence one person. That’s what it means.”
Those who would benefit, according to Rickenmann, are “the Chamber of Commerce, the 1 percenters” – not “the people who pay taxes.”
“The people who are promoting it are the people who are going to profit from it.”
Rickenmann repeats the list of accomplishments that Benjamin’s re-election campaign cites from his first term.
“Didn’t those successes come under this form of government?” Rickenmann asks. “You couldn’t have had those successes if the system was broken.”
To critics of slow decision-making and backers of Benjamin, such as chamber of commerce leaders, Rickenmann said, “If asking questions is inhibiting progress, then maybe the progress isn’t worth it.”
Last week, Baddourah joined fellow mayoral candidate Larry Sypolt in pledging to serve only two four-year terms if elected in November. State law has no such limitation. Former mayor Bob Coble served 20 years.
Joe Riley on strong mayor
The state’s longest-serving strong mayor, Joe Riley of Charleston, says Columbians would be well served by the form of government that he says has served his city well.
He has long supported a change for Columbia, he said, and has discussed it often with current Mayor Steve Benjamin. “I’m not strategizing with him or anything like that. I admire him.”
Riley knows Columbia from having served in the S.C. House in the early to mid-1970s and as a graduate of the University of South Carolina law school.
He is in his 10th term in Charleston, whose strong-mayor structure predates Riley’s election.
When Riley took office in 1975, Charleston’s downtown was “almost dead,” he said. Crime was a serious concern. Today, the port city often is cited nationally as one of the country’s most liveable places and is teeming with tourists.
Riley described his job as being the city’s “chief executive mayor” who manages daily needs and devises creative solutions with help from an executive department that has at least 23 people. Charleston’s 12-person, single-member-district council is “my board of directors.”
“The role of City Council is not diminished by the strong-mayor system,” Riley said. “The council member goes to the mayor ... who is their colleague. The mayor is interested in trying to successfully solve a problem the council member has.”
Pressed to describe the mayor’s power in day-to-day decisions, Riley said, “In the execution of government, then the mayor does (have more power than council members). And that’s great, because then the citizens know who to hold responsible.”
He said he routinely drives King Street to measure the vitality of its commerce by counting people with loaded shopping bags. “I can’t image a city manager worried about counting bags.
“I just feel so strongly how important this change of government is for Columbia,” Riley said. “Having a strong mayor would be great for Columbia. I hope it becomes a reality.”
COMPARISONS - City leader salaries in SC
Here are the salaries of top executives of six major cities in South Carolina. Two of the six operate under a strong-mayor form of government.
Columbia: 129,272 residents; city manager makes $190,000
Charleston: 120,083 residents; strong mayor makes $163,000
North Charleston: 97,471 residents; strong mayor makes $149,000
Mount Pleasant: 67,843 residents; administrator makes $129,000
Rock Hill: 66,154 residents; manager makes $162,200
Greenville: 58,409 residents; manager makes $158,700
SOURCE: Municipal Association of South Carolina
If you go
Columbia City Council is to discuss a salary for a strong mayor at Tuesday’s meeting. The issue is being raised in the event voters approve a new form of government in a presumably upcoming referendum. Columbia’s mayor, who now has the same responsibilities and power as other council members, currently makes $17,500.
Where: Eau Claire print building, 3907 Ensor Ave. at Monticello Road
When: Meeting begins at 6 p.m.
Reach LeBlanc at (803) 771-8664.