Mayoral challengers clash over police probe, strong mayor

cleblanc@thestate.comSeptember 16, 2013 

  • Update: Certifying strong mayor petition

    Richland County election employees continue to certify signatures on petitions calling for a referendum on Columbia’s form of government.

    Director Howard Jackson would not say Monday night how many signatures have been verified from among an estimated 19,000 to 20,000 submitted last week. He would not speculate when the work may be completed, either.

    At least 15 percent of eligible Columbia voters – or 11,063 people, according to boosters – must sign petitions to get the issue on the ballot.

    “Still processing,” Jackson said. “We’re not done yet.”

    Three employees are checking every 10th signature, and a supervisor is confirming their work, he said.

    Once they’re done, the information will be provided to city clerk Erika Moore, he said.

    Dawn Hinshaw

The two challengers for the Columbia mayor’s seat disagreed Monday about whether it’s wise to have a federal investigation of police corruption allegations, and they split less clearly on the need for a strong-mayor form of government.

Councilman Moe Baddourah and former police officer Larry Sypolt spoke during a 70-minute candidate forum at the Lourie Center next to Maxcy Gregg Park. Mayor Steve Benjamin, who is running for re-election, missed the forum sponsored by the Columbia chapter of the American Association for Retired Persons. He called during the exchange of campaign pledges to let the audience of about 40 people know there had been a scheduling mistake.

Baddourah and Sypolt repeatedly asserted their support for improved public safety. But neither offered specific, detailed proposals that would make significant changes nor did they say how much their suggestions would cost or how they would win City Council members’ votes for their ideas.

Baddourah reminded the audience that he was the first to call for an FBI investigation of allegations by former police captain Dave Navarro that interim chief Ruben Santiago had asked Navarro to plant a stolen gun and drugs in the car of the city’s senior assistant city manager, Allison Baker.

Baddourah said a federal probe would give residents who are suspicious of the department comfort that a thorough investigation had been done. “There’s corruption, y’all,” the one-term councilman said at one point during Monday’s exchange.

Sypolt, a political newcomer who said he spent 15 years with the Richland County Sheriff’s Department and the FBI, said making skeptics feel better about the investigation is not a good enough reason to question the State Law Enforcement Division’s credibility or ability to handle the case. SLED has been working on the allegations since mid-July.

Sypolt also underscored that the allegation comes from one person in a police force of more than 400 officers.

Baddourah said he opposes changing the city’s traditional form of government in which a council-appointed manager runs day-to-day operations and hires and fires 2,300 employees. That’s a reversal of Baddourah’s position during his 2012 campaign for the District 3 seats he holds.

Sypolt said there are aspects of a strong-mayor form that worry him, especially that there are no term limits. “I’m not entirely for it. I’m not entirely against it,” Sypolt said of a strong-mayor form.

He said he supports making the police department a division of the sheriff’s department. “That way, we get it out from under City Council,” Sypolt said.

Baddourah said combining the two agencies would be an admission that city leaders have failed in running a good police department. “That should be a last resort,” the councilman said.

Reach LeBlanc at (803) 771-8664.

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