Columbia audience leans away from strong-mayor change

cleblanc@thestate.comSeptember 26, 2013 

FILE PHOTO: "I Voted" stickers line a voting machine inside Hand Middle School in Columbia, Saturday, January 21, 2012.


The themes were familiar Wednesday night, but the division between pro- and anti-strong-mayor forces remained deep at a public debate in north Columbia.

A straw poll taken by the organizers of the 70-minute-long panel discussion showed that seven people in the audience changed their minds and now oppose a strong-mayor system. That’s about an 11.5 percent shift among the 60 members of the 74-person audience who voted in the poll.

Backers of changing the capital city’s 60-plus-year history of a municipal government run by an unelected, professional manager with broad powers said that system is unaccountable to voters and plodding in achieving a business-friendly Columbia that can compete for jobs.

“Do we have unrealized potential?” change advocate former state attorney general Henry McMaster asked the audience at the Eau Claire print building. “I think the answer is a resounding yes.

“If it’s such a great system,” he said of the current strong-manager form of government, “then why do we have such unrealized potential? What we have now is seven people going in every which way.”

Howard Duvall, the retired, longtime director of the state’s Municipal Association, contested whether one powerful, elected mayor is more accountable than an appointed manager.

“The manager has to have four votes out of seven (from the council that appoints the manager) 365 days a year,” Duvall said. “The mayor faces the voters every four years.

“In a strong-mayor system, everybody on council is going to have to get on the good side of the mayor,” said Duvall, who is one of the leaders of a newly organized citizens’ group fighting the referendum, scheduled for Dec. 3.

Three supporters of a strong-mayor system and three opponents faced off in a panel discussion sponsored by the Greater Columbia Community Relations Council, which conducted straw polls before and after the debate.

Pushing the strong-mayor system were McMaster, Lower Waverly neighborhood leader Durham Carter and Greater Columbia Chamber of Commerce leader Lee Bussell.

Opposing the change were Duvall, author and political and social activist Kevin Gray and former Richland County councilwoman Kit Smith.

“A business with seven CEOs doesn’t work well,” Bussell said. “Why don’t we have seven popes or seven presidents?”

He and his contingent on the panel say that big-business owners want to talk to the mayor – not a city manager – when weighing making major investments in Columbia. Voters want a democracy where one person is held accountable when problems remain unresolved.

Carter said that’s what neighborhood leaders want, too. It takes too long to get problems fixed. “We need some one person who we can go to for (solutions to) issues,” Carter said.

“We have been issued a non-cashable check,” Carter said of council members with separate agendas and his frustrations with what he called a slow City Hall bureaucracy in dealing with problems in poorer neighborhoods.

Gray, who lives in a less well-to-do part of town, disputed Carter. “It’s a contraction of democracy ... into one person. The mayor has the power to punish.

“The citizens will have to compete with business interests for the mayor’s ear,” Gray said. “That’s what’s going to happen.”

Bussell and Carter several times reminded the audience that a three-week-long successful petition drive to get the decision on the ballot indicates a public hunger for change.

Gray said he questions whether many of the 11,757 eligible voters who signed the petition understood its implications.

“Sign this, it’s for the mayor,” he said some in his neighborhood were told by people paid to gather the signatures. “People signed because they thought they’re signing for the brother,” said Gray, who is African-American.

Smith, who retired from County Council in 2009, seemed to stump the proponents of change when she pressed them on whether their push was to achieve something other than faster responses to business license applications and other business permits – a fix she said does not substantiate having a new form of government.

“Would anyone on the other side like to respond?” asked moderator David Stanton.

There was a pregnant silence before some audience members began to chuckle.

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