AT THE Greater Columbia Chamber of Commerce’s annual gala on Oct. 3, outgoing chairman Lee Bussell thanked members for the work the business group had accomplished over the past year, including helping win voter approval of Richland County’s transportation sales tax.
He then talked about the next big challenge: The push to get voters to OK a Dec. 3 referendum that would transform Columbia’s mayor into an empowered, full-time executive.
Columbia sorely needs to swap its current form of government in which the day-to-day affairs are run by an unelected, unaccountable manager who answers to seven bosses on City Council for a strong-mayor system in which an elected executive leads the city. The business community is a driving force in the effort and its support is critical.
But as Mr. Bussell requested the aid of the group representative of the power structure in the Columbia business community, his gaze from the podium offered a visual of why some African-Americans are apprehensive about the proposed change in government structure: Yes, historically black Allen University’s choir performed, Bishop Richard Franklin Norris, presiding prelate of the Seventh Episcopal District of the African Methodist Episcopal Church, prayed and two African-Americans — Mayor Steve Benjamin and Cory Lorick — received awards, but the gala was an overwhelmingly white gathering.
How much influence would the largely white business leadership wield over a strong mayor? Some African-Americans fear that it would be too much and that the voices of black citizens and neighborhoods could be drowned out while the business community’s agenda takes precedent. Many white residents and community leaders express a similar sentiment.
State NAACP president Lonnie Randolph hasn’t minced words: “When has the chamber been in the best interest of all members of this community, historically, from an education perspective, from a business perspective?” he’s asked.
I was struck by how overwhelmingly white the gala was, but not because of its potential implications on strong mayor. We should be further along when it comes to diversifying the leadership in Columbia’s business community; after all, our capital city is nearly 50 percent black. While there are some black leaders in top companies, there are far too few and that was evident Oct. 3. That must change if this community is to reach its full potential.
Right now, it’s important to address the perception that a strong mayor would do the bidding of the business community while ignoring minorities and neighborhoods.
Business leaders must not only tout what this change means for them but what it will do for Columbia. This is about having an effective, accountable government that answers to the people. It’s about empowering the mayor to pursue the vision that led voters to elect him. It’s about making someone accountable for when the city’s finances tank, the Police Department crumbles or garbage service stinks.
Would businesses benefit? I hope so. If a strong mayor can more effectively lead efforts to remove unreasonable impediments that hinder businesses’ ability to get up and running, why not? If he can more effectively market Columbia, why not? That all translates into a more vibrant economy, more jobs, new tax revenue and a better quality of life.
But the mayor wouldn’t have unchecked power: The council still would set the budget, make laws and set policy; the mayor only gets one vote. Voters could fire a problematic mayor in four years.
I understand African-Americans’ concerns given how hard they struggled to gain political clout. But that hard-fought progress won’t disappear: No mayor gets elected without solid black support. Columbia’s seven-member council has a black majority, including a councilwoman and mayor elected at-large, both of whom are seeking re-election.
On Thursday, Mr. Bussell said strong mayor would be beneficial “not just for the business community but for the whole community.”
He said Columbia’s business community is more diverse than the Oct. 3 gala showed. Over the past few years, many of the new businesses that have joined the chamber have been owned by African-Americans and women, he said.
When the campaign for strong mayor goes into full swing, a broad-based group of black and white business people as well as others from the community will unite to actively advocate change, he said.
Mr. Bussell said the chamber works at not being a “selfish business community” but one that reaches out to improve the whole. That’s why, for example, the chamber insisted that local minority businesses have an opportunity to benefit from the hundreds of millions of dollars in contract work on projects that will be funded via the transportation sales tax, he said.
“I certainly don’t believe that the business community is at odds with the African-American community,’” he said.
Should local business leadership be more representative of this community? Absolutely. A conversation — and action — is needed to address that.
But it’s also important for Columbia to become a more efficient, accountable and productive city, which would be good for all Columbians.
Reach Mr. Bolton at (803) 771-8631 or firstname.lastname@example.org.