Bolton: Strong mayor effort in Columbia not about a power grab

Associate EditorSeptember 22, 2013 

Warren Bolton

TIM DOMINICK/TDOMINICK@THESTATE.

— MAYOR STEVE Benjamin’s decision to actively advocate for strong mayor has some people accusing him of being power hungry, a dictator-in-waiting.

He knows this is big-boy politics; he’ll survive. But this is why he — at least until now — has avoided actively pursuing strong mayor. Although he made it clear during the 2010 campaign that he believed Columbia’s mayor should be an empowered, full-time executive, he said wouldn’t push it because he didn’t want people to perceive that he was making a “power grab.”

Yes, moving from today’s council-manager to a mayor-council form of government would give the mayor the power to lead the city, including doing the hiring and firing.

But it’s not a power grab when the official serving in the position — who knows what it takes to do the job — has the courage to tell voters that the city needs a new form of government to move from good to great.

Former Mayor Bob Coble, who served for 20 years, long supported making the mayor stronger. But he too was reluctant to lead on the issue, for the same reason as Mr. Benjamin.

Like Mr. Benjamin now, Mr. Coble could be found dashing across Columbia to council meetings, business summits, ribbon cuttings, neighborhood meetings and other gatherings to do the city’s business, greet constituents and build coalitions that could help further his efforts as mayor. But both learned that working 40 hours or more weekly in a weak, part-time position couldn’t make up for the lack of power.

While Mr. Coble was hesitant to get out front, he did try to bring change. In 2004, he convinced the council to appoint a commission to review the forms of government available and make a recommendation. But with him trying not to appear to favor one outcome over another, the panel ended up being stacked with people who opposed strong mayor. While it eventually acknowledged that city government was broken, it made no recommendation.

So Columbia continued with the council-manager structure, and we had serious budget deficits that no one took blame for, the police department foundered and had no one able to set it on its right course, and council members continued to meddle in day-to-day affairs with no one to shoo them away.

Many people expect the mayor to intervene in such circumstances. He’s empowered to ensure that folks in the finance department clean up their act and get the books in order, right? And he can set the police chief straight, can’t he?

Unfortunately, no. While the mayor has some political influence, he doesn’t have the legal authority to take action or make demands.

Under the current council-manager structure, the mayor is simply a council member who presides over meetings and cuts ribbons. The other six council members have as much power as the mayor. Meanwhile, an unelected city manager who answers to all seven council members runs day-to-day operations. Power is so diffused that when things go wrong, everyone can plead a lack of power. There is no one empowered to speak for the city, let along act with authority.

But if the city had a strong mayor, the buck would stop with him, for better or worse. He would have to respond quickly and decisively to correct problems — or face the wrath of voters.

Columbia’s mayor wouldn’t simply be receiving power. He would be taking on enormous responsibility — responsibility that rests with no one at the moment. While the elected executive would get praise when things go right, he would draw the ire of many when things flop.

While some might criticize Mr. Benjamin for pushing for a strong mayor, I appreciate that he’s willing to take on the responsibility if the people reelect him Nov. 5. Who doesn’t like the leader — whether in basketball, football or government — willing to say, “Give me the ball, I’ll score”? Leaders say that knowing what finger pointing awaits should they fail.

During his first couple of years in office, Mr. Benjamin insisted he could be a strong mayor without a change in the form of government. He seemed content to use his bully pulpit and power of persuasion to lead the council and Columbia.

But this summer, with trouble brewing in the police department, Mayor Benjamin ran up against a wall. He proposed a series of actions to address the problems and stabilize the police agency, but found that he was powerless to implement them. That prompted him to ask the council to let voters determine whether a strong mayor should lead the city.

In a letter to the public, Mayor Benjamin wrote, “I am limited to a role of advocacy. … Columbia has grown to the point that we need a mayor with modern executive authority.”

There are no more convincing words to that effect than those of Councilwoman Tameika Isaac Devine, after she decided against a bid for mayor back in 2009: “Really all I would gain was the title of mayor and the responsibility to go to a lot more things than I do now,” she said. “As far as actually doing the job in representing my constituency, the job I have is the same as the job of mayor.”

Well said.

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

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