Editorial: It makes sense for Columbia to hold strong mayor referendum Nov. 5

September 15, 2013 

GERRY MELENDEZ — gmelendez@thestate.com Buy Photo

— WITH IT apparent that petition organizers have collected enough signatures to force a referendum on whether Columbia should have a full-time, empowered mayor, City Council should place the matter on the Nov. 5 ballot and spare taxpayers the expense of a special election.

The council took the first step in that direction Wednesday, albeit on a slim 4-3 vote, when it tentatively approved holding the vote along with the November municipal elections. We commend Mayor Steve Benjamin and council members Sam Davis, Brian DeQuincey Newman and Cameron Runyan for seeing the wisdom in taking advantage of an election already scheduled to avoid what Mr. Benjamin said would be an added cost of more than $150,000.

But this is about more than just saving money. It’s about council members responding to the unequivocal message voters who signed the petition have sent: Just three weeks after the council refused to willingly place the matter on the ballot on a 4-3 vote, petition organizers presented what they say are about 12,500 signatures from eligible voters who live in the city limits. If that is the case, then the campaign would meet the 15 percent threshold — which is estimated at 11,063 Columbia voters — needed to trigger a referendum without the council’s consent.

It would be ideal if county elections officials could complete the certification process prior to the council’s Wednesday discussion; that way, council members would have received official notice that voters have effectively overridden their rejection of a referendum.

But Councilman Davis, who long has opposed placing this matter on the ballot, sees the handwriting on the wall. We appreciate Mr. Davis for being pragmatic and understanding that if voters have decided that this referendum will be on the ballot, there’s no need to waste money on a separate election.

While politics is likely to prevent it, we would like to see council members Tameika Isaac Devine, Leona Plaugh and Moe Baddourah join their colleagues in a unanimous vote to schedule a Nov. 5 referendum. After all, those council members have opposed placing the matter on the ballot under the guise that there was no groundswell of support for it.

Fortunately, there were community and business leaders who knew better. They believed the results of various polls that had been conducted in years past as well as in recent months that said there is strong support across the city for strong mayor. That belief led them to launch an organized effort that apparently has put an end to the question of whether Columbia voters will get to decide whether a strong mayor should oversee the operations of the city.

But if that vote is to be held Nov. 5, the council must make the decision Wednesday to ensure that election officials can meet the tight deadline they have to get ballots prepared, particularly those that must be mailed to absentee voters out of state or out of the country.

This is no longer about whether a vote will be held; it’s about when and at what cost. The correct answer is clear to us. We hope it’s clear to City Council as well.

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