Editorial: Decision on strong mayor now in the hands of Columbia voters

September 22, 2013 

Thanks to a petition campaign that collected more than enough signatures to trigger a referendum, Columbia voters will decide on Dec. 3 whether the city should be led by a strong mayor.

GERRY MELENDEZ — GERRY MELENDEZ/gmelendez@thestate.com Buy Photo

— IT’S OFFICIAL: Columbia voters will decide whether a full-time, empowered mayor should oversee day-to-day operations of the city — in spite of a majority of City Council’s best effort to deny them that opportunity.

It was the good work of petition organizers who were able to collect 11,757 signatures of eligible city voters — in three weeks, no less — that forced the referendum onto the ballot. It never would have happened otherwise.

Council members Sam Davis, Tameika Isaac Devine, Leona Plaugh and Moe Baddourah, through their votes and their rhetoric, had made it clear they never intended for strong mayor to make it to the ballot. Even when the four came together Wednesday to set a Dec. 3 date for a referendum, it was done reluctantly and smacked of little more than one last attempt to exercise as much power over the process as they could.

Although it was apparent that organizers had enough signatures to trigger an election without council’s consent, these four council members voted that a referendum would be held Dec. 3 only if Richland County elections officials could certify that enough signatures were collected; otherwise, there would be no referendum.

The fact is that they should have joined Mayor Steve Benjamin and council members Brian DeQuincey Newman and Cameron Runyan in voting to hold the strong mayor vote on Nov. 5, along with elections for mayor and three council seats. Given that it was evident that petition organizers had done their due diligence to meet the 15 percent threshold — which is estimated at 11,063 Columbia voters — to trigger a referendum, it only made sense to take advantage of an election already scheduled. Why opt to hold a special election, estimated to cost up to $150,000?

Just over a week ago, it appeared that Councilman Davis, who long has opposed placing this matter on the ballot, had embraced that pragmatic position when he tentatively voted in favor of a Nov. 5 referendum. But on Wednesday, he disappointingly reverted to his old form and chose to waste money on a separate election.

But the strong opposition from Mr. Davis and his three comrades isn’t surprising. Humans don’t give up power easily; if strong mayor is approved, the council would lose some of its influence.

Earlier, council members Davis, Devine, Plaugh and Baddourah had refused to place the matter on the ballot at all; they said there was no groundswell of support for it. After it became clear they would be proved wrong on that point, they refused to set a Nov. 5 vote, saying the public needs time to be educated.

No doubt, opponents appreciate the delay, in hopes of stemming the pro-strong-mayor momentum generated by the petition drive and pulling together anti-strong-mayor forces. Nevertheless, voters have sent a strong message not simply in providing signatures to trigger an election but also in issuing a total rebuke of the contention that people have no appetite for change.

We’re glad that voters are going to have their say on Dec. 3. And we hope they embrace the change this city so desperately needs.

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