Bolton: Columbians not ignorant about strong mayor

Associate EditorSeptember 18, 2013 

Warren Bolton

TIM DOMINICK/TDOMINICK@THESTATE.

— I DON’T BELIEVE for a minute that Columbia’s voters are as clueless about what a strong mayor is as some City Council members and others have been suggesting.

But that’s a key reason being used now in an attempt to convince the council not to vote to ask voters on Nov. 5 whether the city’s daily operations should be overseen by a full-time, empowered mayor.

Yes, it’s imperative to hold forums and disseminate information to help voters learn about the current council-manager structure as well as mayor-council, or strong mayor. But I can’t imagine that it would be too difficult for voters to comprehend a helpful nuts-and-bolts presentation on council-manager and mayor-council soon enough to vote in November.

Truth is, many voters know more about strong mayor than they do the people running for mayor and City Council. Nobody is asking for more time so voters can be educated about the people who will help run the city the next four years.

With it apparent that petition organizers have collected enough signatures to trigger an election, it only makes sense for the city to go ahead and schedule a vote on Nov. 5, along with other municipal elections. If that doesn’t happen, then the council would have to spend around $150,000 for a special election on the referendum.

And for what? A few more weeks to get information out to voters? Let’s be real. Voters need enough information to help determine which form they prefer. They don’t need a 16-week course that counts toward a college degree.

Without a doubt, there are some citizens who need help understanding strong mayor. But many voters know what mayor-council entails. Many also know how they’ll vote. No less than four different polls, some conducted in recent months, have shown that a strong majority of voters across the city favors empowering the mayor to run day-to-day operations.

And the fact that petition organizers were able to collect signatures from more than 15 percent of the city’s registered voters in three weeks is impressive and sends a message. In the past, only about 15 percent of city voters cast ballots in a typical spring election. Nov. 5 will be the first time city voters go to the polls in the fall.

Organizers submitted what they believe to be more than 12,500 signatures from eligible city voters to county election officials; they only need 11,063. While we don’t know that everyone who signed the petition favors strong mayor, chances are that the overwhelming majority of them do. And that’s why opponents want to block the vote.

Business and community leaders came together to launch the petition drive in August, after a council majority — Sam Davis, Tameika Isaac Devine, Leona Plaugh and Moe Baddourah — rejected a proposal to place the matter on the Nov. 5 ballot; the council members insisted there was no significant support for it.

Since the petition process proves them wrong, the only intellectually honest thing to do is place the matter on the ballot as soon as possible, which is Nov. 5.

But so far, only Councilman Davis has shown the wisdom to do so; last week, he cast the deciding fourth vote in favor of a November referendum on first reading. The final vote is today.

Now others are saying the referendum should be held later so the public can be educated.

Is this a real call for time to provide voters with useful information or a delay tactic, an attempt to slow the momentum gained from the petition campaign and mount an effort to defeat strong mayor at the polls?

While I certainly support providing information, it’s important to note that the concept of strong mayor is hardly new to Columbia. Few issues, if any, have been debated more — in council chambers and the public square — over more than a decade.

In 1997, a group of business people floated the idea, but it didn’t go anywhere. Since 2002, strong mayor has been discussed rather consistently, on some level, in Columbia.

In the process, many voters have gotten a decent education on the forms of government available to cities, particularly strong mayor. Can citizens write an in-depth paper on strong mayor? Probably not. But they know what it means to allow an empowered mayor elected and accountable to the people run the city’s day-to-day affairs.

Citizens probably learned the most in 2004-05, when the council-appointed Columbia Commission on Government Restructuring and Reform studied the various options in a supposed effort to determine which was best for the city. The commission heard from sitting and former public officials from inside and outside the state and from experts. It also held a series of public hearings across the city. The Municipal Association provided its expertise in myriad ways, including helping to explain the various forms of government.

While the process was supposed to take six months, it was nearly three years before a report was made. The commission was stacked with strong-mayor opponents who never intended to back a change. Still, the panel was compelled to acknowledge that city government was broken, noting that council members meddled in day-to-day affairs and trampled upon the manager and that there was no one in charge of setting a strategic plan or long-range vision for the city.

Columbians who wanted to got a good education on strong mayor and other forms of government through that process.

As the issue has come up since then, council repeatedly has brought the Municipal Association in to explain — to the council and to the public — the different forms and how they work.

And for those who still want more, the city has maintained links to information about the forms of government on its website at columbiasc.net/citycouncil. The Municipal Association site has a nice review for the lay person as well as a more in-depth analysis for elected officials. Go to masc.sc and search for “forms of local government.”

Over the years, this newspaper has published countless news stories explaining the forms of government and the ongoing debate in Columbia as well as columns and editorials that have offered opinion and analysis about the pros and cons of the forms of government. And, yes, this editorial board supports a change to strong mayor. It’s a more effective, accountable system than one in which an unelected city manager supervised by seven bosses, all with their own agendas, runs day-to-day affairs.

While it is more efficient for the council to schedule a strong mayor referendum for Nov. 5, it ultimately doesn’t matter. Once the signatures from the petition are certified, a vote will have to be scheduled; it’ll just cost extra.

Reach Mr. Bolton at (803) 771-8631 or wbolton@thestate.com.

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