Columbia mayoral candidates clash during forum

cleblanc@thestate.comOctober 8, 2013 

— Columbia’s possible conversion to a strong-mayor form of government dominated separate candidate forums Tuesday in north Columbia among all nine people seeking to fill a majority of City Council.

The 31/2-hour forum sponsored by the North Columbia Business Association and area neighborhood groups is one of the few attended by all candidates for City Council’s four contested seats.

Councilman Moe Baddourah, also a contender for the mayor’s seat, again accused Mayor Steve Benjamin of pushing for a referendum – backed largely by business leaders – with short public notice to advance Benjamin’s’ political career.

“This is all a political scam by Benjamin,” Baddourah told about 50 people at the Eau Claire print building.

Benjamin shot back, saying Baddourah has flip-flopped on what has become the dominant issue in Columbia’s first fall election and a Dec. 3 form-of-government referendum.

Benjamin read newspaper accounts of Baddourah’s endorsement during his spring 2012 campaign to become the representative of District 3.

The mayor particularly focused on a State newspaper editorial column published July 10, 2012. In that column Baddourah was quoted as having told the newspaper’s opinion staff three months earlier, “We need a (full-time) mayor for the city to bring business in. I’d love for Benjamin to be a full-time mayor. I think he’s a really good face for the city.”

Baddourah ran then as he is now on his business experience and on attracting more commercial investment into Columbia.

On Tuesday, Benjamin, 43, contrasted his long, steady support for a strong-mayor system. “One kept his promise. One reneged on his promise,” Benjamin said with Baddourah sitting at his side.

Baddourah, 50 and a restaurant owner serving the early years of his first term, did not respond. His district includes neighborhoods radiating from the University of South Carolina campus.

Mayoral challenger Larry Sypolt, 36, said he endorses allowing voters to decide on whether to change from Columbia’s long-standing strong-manager form. The former Richland County deputy and a political newcomer did not say whether he would vote for a strong-mayor system.

Perhaps the biggest surprise in the debate came when Sypolt disclosed that Columbia police shot and killed his father when Sypolt was 4 weeks old in what the candidate said was a justifiable shooting. Later, Sypolt said he discussed the personal matter publicly for the first time in part to keep others from portraying his father’s death in 1977 “in a negative manner.”

Sypolt told the newspaper that his father, Larry Ledford, was shot in the back when police caught him breaking into a house. Sypolt, who took his stepfather’s name, said he recently found the house while knocking on doors soliciting votes.

He said his biological parents met when his mother, a nurse, worked at the now-demolished Central Correctional Institution where his father served time on weekends.

Sypolt swallowed hard and choked back emotion when he made the announcement at the beginning of a 90-minute forum when candidates were asked to discuss their personal histories and reasons for running.

Benjamin and Baddourah also exchanged shots when the candidates were asked about Benjamin’s failed attempt to set a city policy that would have kept elected officials away from crime scenes.

Benjamin said Baddourah went to a recent shooting where a Columbia police officer shot a suspect.

Baddourah countered that the incumbent “was on the way to the crime scene” when officers in July arrested NAACP state leader Lonnie Randolph for resisting and trespassing at a Five Points dry-cleaning business. A few days later, Benjamin calls for a policy that did not define a crime scene and which all other council members said was unnecessary.

The six contenders for the three other council seats spoke in a forum that began at 6 p.m. They outlined their positions and offered their visions for the city. None spelled out specific ways to achieve their campaign goals, but their answers were limited to no more than three minutes.

The only other citywide race on the Nov. 5 ballot is for the seat held for nearly 12 years by Councilwoman Tameika Isaac Devine. She is being challenged by north Columbia businessman Tommy Burkett in his first campaign.

Devine, 40 and a lawyer, is running on her record, which includes her opposition to a strong mayor.

She told the audience the issue comes down to, “Do you want a professional manager or do you want a political manager?”

Burkett, 70, an electrical contractor, said he remains undecided.

Contenders for council’s two district races include District 1 incumbent Sam Davis, council’s longest-serving current member, and Bruce Trezevant, who said he is a former Los Angeles police officer.

Davis, 65, whose district includes North Columbia and stretches to the Harbison area, said he, too, opposes a strong-mayor system.

“What comes with strong mayor is primarily a lot of favoritism,” said Davis, who reversed his opposition to a referendum after a successful citizen petition drive.

Trezevant, 54, said he opposes changing the form of government because, “It takes away the power of the rest of City Council.”

The more fiscally conservative District 4 seat is held by first-term Councilwoman and former Columbia city manager Leona Plaugh, 62. She is being challenged by developer Todd Walter, 73, who said he has not decided on his position on a strong mayor.

Other questions from the audience included taxpayer funding of utilities for the proposed Bull Street neighborhood, pressure for higher water and sewer bills to repair the city’s neglected sewer system, and allowing the police chief to run the department without City Hall interference.

Originally, the forum for the mayoral candidates was to be part of the 6 p.m. meeting for the other three seats. But the mayoral portion was separated to accommodate the schedules of the mayoral candidates, said Sabrina Odomcq, director of the business association.

Reach LeBlanc at (803) 771-8664.

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