A closer look at pros, cons of strong-mayor system

cleblanc@thestate.comSeptember 28, 2013 

Charleston Mayor Joe Riley

FILE PHOTOGRAPH — THE STATE Buy Photo

Emotions are strong and the rhetoric is heated in the tug-of-war over a ballot question on whether to change Columbia’s form of government

The referendum question will go before voters in a Dec. 3 special election.

Some residents argue that they don’t know enough about the implications of a strong-mayor system or how it would differ from the current form of government, led by a hired city manager, which the city has used since 1949.

Those pushing for change counter that city leaders have debated the topic for years; they say Columbia needs an elected chief executive who is empowered to make decisions quickly so the city can better compete for businesses and the jobs they would bring.

Inside today, The State newspaper examines answers to some of the questions being raised.

See Page A8 for an easy-to-digest explanation of many of the key issues.

Overall powers

Under each of the three systems of municipal government in South Carolina, the council has the ultimate authority. It makes laws, sets policies and determines annual budgets.

The three forms are defined largely by the distribution of power: 1) A strong-manager (council-manager) form, which Columbia has now; 2) a strong-mayor (mayor-council) form; and 3) a strong-council (council) form. A strong mayor is a chief executive who makes day-to-day decisions. Under Columbia’s current government, the city manager is the chief executive who is hired and fired by council.

A strong mayor, just like a strong manager, must operate within the boundaries and policies set by council. A key difference is that a majority of council members can fire a manager. It cannot fire an elected mayor.

Personnel authority

Columbia’s 2,230 full- and part-time workers are at-will employees, meaning they can be fired by the city manager. All but 85, who are part-time employees, have grievance rights. That means they can fight their dismissal. But ultimately, the manager makes the call. Council has no legal authority to influence hiring and firing decisions except for that of city manager, city attorney and municipal judges.

All of that authority would transfer to a strong mayor if the system changed.

Currently, council members are barred by state law from directly contacting city employees, a law often ignored.

Council’s legal authority over the city’s workforce would not change under a strong mayor. But in practice, city employees are deferential to members of council and heed their requests.

Budgetary controls

The mayor is one of seven voices on council who determine the annual budget and taxes through the amount of money allocated and through financial policies such as transfers from the water and sewer accounts into the General Fund.

The General Fund pays for most city functions. Council has and will continue to have the authority to put spending limits on the city manager or a strong mayor.

Currently, Columbia city manager’s limit is $49,999. Any expenditures that exceed that amount require a vote of council.

The manager listens to council’s directives on broad spending practices and submits budget recommendations. Council tweaks the recommended budget and votes twice to adopt an annual budget, which by state law and the state constitution must be balanced. But the manager may move money around within the budget as limited by council. The same would apply to a strong mayor.

A strong mayor would fill the same financial role as the city manager.

Job qualifications

State law requires that candidates for City Council, including the mayor’s seat, must be at least 18 years old and be registered voters in the city limits by Election Day. Candidates may not run if they have been convicted of a state or federal felony, election-law violations or if fewer than 15 years have passed since they completed their sentence for such offenses. A pardon allso would clear the way for seeking office. The law does not provide for term limits.

None of that will not change for a mayor under a new form of government.

As for a city manager, council has set the qualifications to require, at minimum, eight to 10 years of experience in public administration and at least a bachelor’s degree in a relevant field. However, council has waived parts of those requirements or changed them in hiring the past three city managers.

Removal of the chief executive

Currently, any member of City Council can be suspended from office at the discretion of the governor, but only under limited circumstances. The state constitution permits the governor to act if an elected official has been indicted by a grand jury for a state or federal felony, a crime of “moral turpitude” or agrees not to fight a pending indictment. Indictments for some election-law violations also can result in suspension by the governor. Exceptions include if a candidate has been pardoned for any of those crimes or completed his or her sentence at least 15 years before seeking office. An arrest alone is not a basis for suspension from office. The mayor pro tem serves as mayor while the charges are in court.

Removal from office occurs only upon conviction. The governor then declares the office vacant and a new election is held. If removal occurs within 180 of the normal election day, it seat is filled as scheduled. If election day is more than 180 days after removal, a special election is held on the 13th Tuesday after removal from office.

South Carolina’s constitution, its laws, its Supreme Court rulings and its legal opinions by the attorney general have defined “moral turpitude” as crimes that involve fraud, such as embezzlement or misspending public money for private use. But the arcane term “moral turpitude” also has included a hit-and-run accident, because fleeing involves personal irresponsibility, an attorney general’s opinion states.

In a state Supreme Court case, the justices’ definition of moral turpitude reads: “An act of baseness, vileness, or depravity in the private and social duties which a man owes to his fellow man, or society in general, contrary to the accepted and customary fight and duty between man and man.”

Structure of mayor’s office vs. manager’s office

Currently, the part-time mayor has three city employees assigned to his office. The mayor is paid $17,500 yearly and has an expense account. Council, acknowledging that the mayor’s pay is low, is considering a big raise regardless of the outcome of the referendum. An initial vote on a new salary is scheduled for Tuesday.

A strong mayor could seek council’s permission to hire executive administrators to help run the city. Once they are hired, however, council would have no more control of the administrators than it has over any other city employee – which, under the law, is none.

Full-time/part-time

Nothing in state law requires strong mayors to work full time as a city’s chief executive. That’s because most strong mayors in South Carolina are elected in small towns where the elective job pays little.

Columbia’s mayors have said through the years that the hours spent serving the public amount to a full-time job with a part-time salary. The three candidates seeking the job in the Nov. 5 election have pledged to be full-time mayors. Only Steve Benjamin has said he will cut ties to his profession. He is an attorney. The two challengers say they will maintain arms-length ties to the businesses they own.

Council’s only direct power over a mayor who is not doing the job effectively is to vote to reduce the salary of the position.

Effect on 4-2-1

Creation of a strong mayor has no legal impact on the 4-2-1 elective system the city adopted in 1983 after a court fight. That structure cleared the way for choosing Columbia’s first African-American council members.

The 4-2-1 plan requires that council be comprised of a representative from four geographic areas of town, two to represent the entire city and a mayor elected citywide. Each representative has an equal vote on council, so council members do not have to answer to the mayor. Critics of the current system say it creates seven fiefdoms, or as one put it, “seven Indians and no chief.”

In practice, a strong mayor would dilute the authority of council members because constituents and powerbrokers would go straight to the mayor to get things done instead of turning to their own representative, according to detractors of a strong-mayor system. The mayor could play favorites with council members who support the mayor’s initiatives.

Outside influences over chief executive

People or organizations that want something from the city now tend to go to their council member or one of the three members elected citywide. Council members then barter with their peers on council for support of their particular constituencies.

That diffuse power structure both equalizes council’s members’ influence and fractures authority. Divided authority slows decisions and makes it difficult to assign credit or blame, critics of the current system say. It also invites meddling by council members jockeying for their districts’ agendas.

Opponents of change say the concentration of power in a strong mayor invites abuse. The mayor, who would control the city’s workforce, could punish a council member who does not toe the line by slowing or stopping projects in that member’s district or by interfering with issues favored by that council member.

Still, any action by council requires a majority vote – four, in most cases. That will not change under a strong-mayor system.

Popularity in S.C. cities of strong mayor, strong manager, strong council

Strong mayor is most popular form of government in South Carolina (145 of 270 municipalities). It is mostly used in small towns. But two of the state’s largest cities, Charleston and North Charleston, have strong mayors.

A strong-council system, which has no mandated chief executive, is second most popular (93 of 270). Mount Pleasant, Summerville and Greer among the larger cities run by strong councils.

Strong manager is third most common (32 of 270). Most of the state’s larger cities have this form, including Columbia, Rock Hill, Greenville, Sumter, Hilton Head, Florence, Spartanburg, Aiken, Myrtle Beach and Anderson.

SOURCES: Municipal Association of South Carolina, League of Women Voters of the Columbia Area, S.C. Attorney General legal opinions, S.C. Supreme Court cases, interviews with municipal-law specialists, research by The State newspaper.


Form of government forums

SPONSOR: Richland County alumnae chapter of Delta Sigma Theta sorority

When: Mon., Sept. 30, 6-8 p.m.

Where: Bethel AME Church, 819 Woodrow St.


SPONSOR: League of Women Voters

When: Thurs. Oct 3, 5:30-7:30 p.m.

Where: USC School of Law auditorium

Municipal Association of South Carolina’s Scott Slatton


SPONSOR: Vista Rotary Club

When: Tues., Oct. 8, 6-7 p.m.

Where: Hall of Fame Room at Cola. Convention Cntr.

Scott Slatton of the Municipal Association of South Carolina speaks at 6:30 p.m.


SPONSOR: College Place Community Council

When: Mon., Oct. 14, 7-8 p.m.

Where: College Place United Methodist Church, 4801 Colonial Drive

Municipal Association of South Carolina staffers: Reba H. Campbell, Jeff Shacker, Scott Slatton


SPONSOR: League of Women Voters (a panel discussion)

When: Thurs., Oct. 17, 5:30-7:30 p.m.

Where: USC law school auditorium

Jon Pierce, retired associate director of USC’s Governmental Research and Service in the Institute of Public Service and Policy Research; Gary Cannon, dir. S.C. Workers’ Compensation Commission and government relations professional; Diane Sumpter, president of DESA, Inc.

Moderator: Rita Paul of the League of Women Voters


SPONSOR: Christian Service Social Action Committee

When: Sat., Oct. 26, 6-8 p.m.

Where: Jones Memorial AME Zion Church, 2400 Barhamville Road

Note: Includes a mayoral debate

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