Petition clears way for Dec. 3 strong-mayor referendum in Columbia

cleblanc@thestate.comSeptember 20, 2013 

— Columbians will get a chance on Dec. 3 to change the city’s civic history, now that a citizens’ petition has met a state law requirement that forces a referendum.

The Richland County Elections & Voter Registration office on Friday delivered a notice to City Hall that 11,757 eligible voters had signed a petition seeking a referendum.

City Council, which on Wednesday authorized the referendum if the petition became certified, now turns toward a public education campaign to explain the differences between a strong-mayor form of government and Columbia’s 60 years of experience with a strong manager, who runs day-to-day operations and hires and fires Columbia’s work force.

That possible transfer of power to a strong mayor is what voters will decide in an early-December special election.

Mayor Steve Benjamin, the most high-profile advocate for the change, said Friday, “The city has been asking for at least 20 years to have this discussion. It’s refreshing. It says something good for our democracy.”

Strong-mayor supporter Councilman Cameron Runyan also was buoyed by the petition.

“I am so proud of this city because when council failed to act, and it did fail, ... the people joined together and won their right to vote,” Runyan said.

Mayoral challenger Councilman Moe Baddourah said in a statement Friday that he does not oppose a referendum but he would have preferred six months for public education.

“Unfortunately,” Baddourah said, “the mayor withheld his strong-mayor plans from the public until just last month – less than three months from Election Day. It was deliberately timed to allow for as little public discussion or debate as possible.”

Council members, many of whom say voters do not fully understand the implications of a strong-mayor system, have been discussing how to inform voters before they go to the polls in about 10 weeks.

Education will be key, they said.

Suggestions for how to communicate with residents have ranged from water bill stuffers to more forums and public service announcements on the city’s television channel.

Councilwomen Tameika Isaac Devine and Leona Plaugh, who have raised legal and practical questions about the change in government, said council should discuss any city-sponsored campaign to be sure the language is neutral, clear and avoids “legalese.”

“I’m concerned about the information being objective,” Devine said. She stressed again that voters need to know that state law allows a strong mayor to hold other jobs and to delegate authority over city decisions. Benjamin has pledged that if he were to become Columbia’s first constituted strong mayor that he would work full time for residents and not accept any other jobs.

In a rare moment on this issue, Devine and Benjamin agreed Friday. “It’s so important that the role the city plays is in educating, not advocating,” the mayor said.

He said he plans to present his ideas for the campaign at council’s Oct. 1 meeting. Council would have to vote to spend money on any such education campaign.

Educational forums on the form of government already are scheduled by the League of Women Voters of the Columbia Area and the Greater Columbia Community Relations Council. The Community Relations Council receives funding from City Council. The League does not.

The county elections office actually verified the necessary number of petition signatures Thursday afternoon but double-checked its findings on Friday morning before turning the petition over to the city, said elections director Howard Jackson.

The certified number exceeds by 694 the 11,063 minimum number of signatures required by state law for Columbia.

A highly organized, three-week-long citizens’ petition drive was triggered earlier this month by City Council’s third refusal within 18 months to authorize a referendum, each time by a one-vote margin. State law allows citizens to force a referendum if 15 percent of registered voters sign a petition.

County election officials have been examining the signatures since last week. Several times during that process, city officials said they had been notified the results would be forthcoming. Each time the outcome was delayed.

Only county election officials may certify a petition.

The state law that governs petition certification requires that each of the first 500 signatures be checked against voter registration and other records to verify whether the signee is eligible to vote in a Columbia election. After the first 500 signatures, election officials must make random checks of no fewer than one in 10 signatures.

Jackson said his office used the one-in-10 standard.

Once the number of verified signatures reach the trigger set in state law, the 15 percent standard, a petition is declared certified. If the petition fell short of the number of eligible signatures, it would have been declared invalid.

The petition campaign collected a reported 19,000 to 20,000 signatures within three weeks after council declined by one vote on Aug. 12 to put a referendum on a ballot.

In the wake of the petition drive, council reversed its position on Sept. 11 – again by one vote – and gave tentative approval to putting the change of government question on the Nov. 5 ballot.

Then this week, council agreed to a referendum but only in a special election on Dec. 3. The one-vote majority said the referendum would be held only if the petition was declared valid.


Upcoming strong-mayor educational forums

Various groups are planning voter-education forums in coming weeks to educate Columbia residents on what a strong mayor form of government is and what it could mean for the city.

Sept. 25, 5:30 p.m., a discussion and educational forum with speakers from both sides of the issue, sponsored by the Greater Columbia Community Relations Council. At the Eau Claire print building, 3907 Ensor Ave. at Monticello Road

Oct. 3, 5:30-7:30 p.m., a discussion and educational forum, sponsored by the League of Women Voters of the Columbia Area. Features Scott Slatton of the Municipal Association of South Carolina. At the USC law school auditorium, 701 S. Main St.

Oct. 14, 7-8 p.m., a discussion sponsored by the College Place Community Council, featuring the Municipal Association’s Scott Slatton, Reba H. Campbell and Jeff Shacker. At College Place United Methodist Church, 4801 Colonial Drive

Oct. 17, 5:30-7:30 p.m., a panel discussion of the pros and cons of various forms of government for Columbia, sponsored by the League of Women Voters of the Columbia Area. Panelists are Jon Pierce, of the USC Institute for Public Service and Policy research; Gary Cannon, executive director of the S.C. Workers Compensation Commission and a government relations professional; Diane Sumpter, president and CEO of DESA Inc. At the USC law school auditorium, 701 S. Main St.

Reach LeBlanc at (803) 771-8664.

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