Bolton: Columbia’s strong mayor wouldn’t have unchecked power

Associate EditorOctober 3, 2013 

  • Forums on forms of government

    • 5:30 p.m. today, USC School of Law auditorium, League of Women Voters, sponsor

    • 6 p.m. Oct. 8, Hall of Fame Room at Cola. Convention Cntr., Vista Rotary Club, sponsor

    • 7 p.m. Oct. 14, College Place United Methodist Church, 4801 Colonial Drive, College Place Community Council, sponsor

    5:30 p.m. Oct. 17, USC School of Law auditorium, League of Women Voters, sponsor

    • 6 p.m. Oct. 26, Jones Memorial AME Zion Church, 2400 Barhamville Road, Christian Service Social Action Committee

— As much as I want to see a strong mayor lead Columbia, even I wouldn’t welcome the all-powerful czar some people are suggesting would occupy the city’s top elected position if voters approve the change Dec. 3.

To hear some talk, the mayor would be so dominant that City Council would be powerless, neighborhood leaders would have no voice and African-Americans and poor people would have substantially less influence.

There is this, I believe misplaced, feeling among some that an empowered mayor would have his own agenda and only do the bidding of powerful interests while dismissing neighborhoods and residents.

I heard one gentleman tell an acquaintance that a strong mayor would be able to “do whatever he wants to do.”

Unfortunately, Mayor Steve Benjamin’s comment in reference to his attempts to get a minor league baseball team to Columbia didn’t help temper these exaggerated responses to what ultimately would be a more efficient, accountable system of governance. Mayor Benjamin said that he is a “committee of one” on the council in favor of a baseball park. “So I have to build consensus or change the form of government.”

Obviously, that raised a few eyebrows.

But a strong mayor wouldn’t be able to push through a taxpayer-funded stadium without the consent of a majority of City Council. If City Council doesn’t want a publicly-funded baseball stadium — and I don’t think the public should pay for one — there won’t be one. Under strong mayor, just as it is under the current council-manager structure, City Council would still approve the budget, make laws and set policies. The mayor has only one vote in that process.

The fact is that the prowess of a strong mayor, while certainly a significant change for Columbia, has been greatly exaggerated. But we don’t have to imagine what the mayor’s duties and authority are; they’re spelled out in state law. In short, the mayor would oversee day-to-day operations — including hiring and firing — propose a budget for council’s approval, preside over council meetings and have one vote on the council.

That’s not a “do whatever he wants to do” job description. Quite frankly, what it does is empower the mayor to make decisions and coordinate city resources to help deliver on the vision that voters elect him to fulfill.

If you want a review of the forms of city government you can digest in the comfort of your homes, go to Columbia’s website at columbiasc.net/citycouncil. Or you can go to the S.C. Municipal Association’s site — masc.sc — and search for “forms of local government.”

For some live discussion on the pros and cons of strong mayor, you might want to attend one or more of the forums sponsored by groups such as the Greater Community Relations Council, the League of Women Voters, Delta Sigma Theta Sorority and others.

Don’t be surprised if you hear claims that the mayor would be super strong and unchecked. Some of that chatter could be chalked up to a lack of understanding of what a strong mayor can do under the mayor-council form of government. But there are also those who are purposely making strong mayor out to be the boogeyman in an attempt to scare voters.

Would council members, particularly district representatives, and neighborhood leaders lose some power if the mayor is strengthened? Yes. Council members would have to operate differently to address some district needs. District representatives on the council, who have traditionally had sole authority over projects and issues in their areas, would have to deal with an elected mayor rather than a city manager they hire and fire. Neighborhood leaders couldn’t simply pick up the phone and call one council member to get them to lean on the city manager, a department head (the police chief, for example) or city employee.

But that doesn’t mean neighborhoods would suffer. The mayor would be obligated to serve the entire city.

Understandably, some African-Americans, who fought long and hard to get representation on the council and influence in capital city politics, wonder what effect a change in government would have on their influence and the gains at City Hall. Without a question, there has been more attention to issues important to black residents and neighborhoods since the first two African-Americans were elected to the council in 1982.

But any mayor who gets elected isn’t likely to do so without solid support from African-American voters; the city is roughly 50 percent black. It would be political suicide for a mayor — whether a strong mayor or not — to disregard the needs and concerns of half the city’s population.

It’s difficult to argue that black citizens would lose a substantial amount of influence given that Columbia’s seven-member council has a black majority, including a councilwoman and mayor elected at-large. Mayor Benjamin is seeking a second term on the council and Tameika Isaac Devine is seeking a fourth term as an at-large council member.

Just as a strong mayor wouldn’t be able to ignore black voters, he wouldn’t be able to overlook the concerns of council members or neighborhoods. That’s because all of those folks will be able to help provide a check on the mayor’s power.

The only way an empowered mayor could run roughshod over Columbia as some are predicting would be if City Council, voters, the media, the business community and neighborhood leaders fail to do their part in making sure the mayor does the job appropriately.

City Council needs to be active and diligent in carrying out its duties — from approving the budget to setting policy to challenging the mayor and city departments to be effective, responsible stewards. The council would have to grant its blessing to many things a mayor would propose, meaning it would have leverage to ensure the mayor works in concert with it.

In addition, the Freedom of Information Act and scrutiny from the media would bring significant pressure on both the mayor and the council to operate in the light. Not only that, I would expect constant pressure from neighborhoods and the business community.

Ultimately, voters would choose the mayor, who would be directly answerable to them. If a mayor doesn’t do his job well, voters shouldn’t re-elect him.

This isn’t simply an attempt to transfer power from the council or the city manager to the mayor. It’s about giving an elected executive responsibility and accountability that currently rests no where. It’s swapping the current anti-accountability structure in which no one is in charge and no one is held responsible when things go awry for a form of government in which voters know exactly where the buck stops.

That’s not at the office of a czar. That’s at the office of the mayor, someone voters can hold accountable.

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

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