Group launches effort against strong mayor petition

cleblanc@thestate.comSeptember 17, 2013 

— A fledgling “dinner table” group of Columbians on Tuesday called on City Council to delay a strong-mayor referendum for a month and council later postponed a decision on how much to pay a new chief executive for the capital city.

The group, that grew to about 40 people at an afternoon news conference, said the choice of a mayor in the Nov. 5 election should be divorced from the decision on possibly changing Columbia’s longtime strong-manager form.

They asked council to schedule a Dec. 3 referendum, but council took no action on Tuesday. It might discuss the delay at a special-called meeting Wednesday on the issue of a referendum.

“If the people speak to a change in our form of government, let us do so with full awareness and knowledge,” group spokesman Howard Duvall said on the steps of the Eau Claire print building. “Let’s make sure that the process of change does not taint the outcome.”

Duvall said the bipartisan group does not want a change in form of government to become a referendum on Mayor Steve Benjamin, who is seeking a second term and is a strong advocate for changing the mayor’s office into the chief executive of the city with the hiring and firing power now vested in a city manager.

Just hours after the group’s news conference, City Council discussed whether to set a salary for a strong mayor, but no votes were taken. Benjamin and Councilman Moe Baddourah, a challenger for the mayor’s seat, said they would not participate in the discussion and left the meeting during the half-hour discussion.

Council’s conversation turned toward whether to write a job description – though state law already spells out the duties and powers of a strong mayor – or whether council could block a strong mayor from holding another job. That, too, is answered in state law: No, city attorney Ken Gaines told council.

Other important details about the power shift from the current form of government were debated. Few were settled.

Gaines said council can wait as late as Nov. 4 to cast the last of two required votes on changing the mayor’s salary from the current $17,500. If a decision about salary is delayed until after the Nov. 5 election, state law would prohibit the increase from taking effect before January 2016 after the city’s next set of council elections in the fall of 2015.

The citizens’ group argues there are too many unanswered questions about the powers or restraints of power on a strong mayor.

The newly organized group plans to sponsor its own educational forums, Duvall said, adding, “We make up in energy what we lack in funding.”

Opponents also pointed out that some major cities are seeking to backtrack from strong-mayor systems. Duvall cited San Diego, Calif., and Toledo, Ohio.

Further, the citizen opponents said, cities often cited by Columbia’s business and political leaders as examples for how Columbia should grow – Chattanooga, Charlotte, Greenville – have professional managers, not strong-mayor, governments.

Duvall said the extra cost of a special election on Dec. 3 is worth an informed electorate.

He pointed out that the city spent millions of dollars “on an old cotton warehouse” and wrote “a blank check” to Greenville developer Bob Hughes to construct a vast neighborhood on the Bull Street property.

Council on Wednesday is poised to cast what could be a final vote on placing a council-authorized referendum on the Nov. 5 ballot.

“People don’t seem to understand they are giving up professional management for political management,” said Albert Reid, another spokesman for the citizens group. “We have an array of questions about whether or not neighborhoods will suffer when business and financial influences become stronger,” Reid, a community activist, said in a statement issued before the news conference.

The leadership of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People also opposes the change in form of government.

“We are concerned that the voice of the less powerful be heard in our City,” NAACP state director Lonnie Randolph said.

The opponents said the Greater Columbia Chamber of Commerce is leading the strong-mayor campaign. The opponents questioned who is paying the “tens of thousands of dollars” being spent on the petition drive and campaign.

The chamber has not released its budget for the campaign, which included paying a Georgia company to run the petition drive.

Council might not have any choice but to hold a referendum within 90 days if Richland County election officials certify the petition that its backers say had more than 12,000 certifiable signatures. That, the backers say, is more than state law requires to mandate a referendum. Council would still have to choose a referendum date.


Tonight, 6 p.m.: Columbia City Council will consider a final vote on a council-authorized strong-mayor referendum question on the Nov. 5 ballot. The meeting will be held at the Eau Claire print building, 3907 Ensor Ave., at Monticello Road


Independently from City Council, Richland County election officials continue to check that signatures on a petition advocating for a strong-mayor referendum are actually those of registered Columbia voters. If signatures of at least 15 percent of the population are verified, a referendum would be held sometime within 30 to 90 days.

Reach LeBlanc at (803) 771-8664.

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