They have been outmaneuvered, outspent and out-organized, yet a cadre of Columbia leaders is working feverishly on a way to defeat a future under a codified strong mayor at City Hall – all within the next three weeks.
Communities United for a Better Columbia seeks to persuade a majority of Columbians who will vote on Dec. 3 that good government looks like what the city has now.
“The city manager is accountable 365 days a year,” said Howard Duvall, one of the organizers of Communities United and the former executive director of the S.C. municipal association. “If you have a strong mayor who’s accountable every four years – and you’ve seen how much money he’s raised – you’ll have to raise a half-million dollars to remove an entrenched strong mayor.”
The group shares a singular goal: Keep the 64-year-old form of government designed to be led by a professional manager who, on paper, is insulated from political pressure.
Behind the organization’s catchy name is a dinner table group that is bipartisan and biracial, with ties to Columbia’s neighborhoods as well as its commercial and political life.
The group has raised a few thousand dollars and has spent a large chunk of that to buy hundreds of yard signs that are to be staked over the weekend, Duvall and former Richland County Councilwoman Kit Smith said.
Councilwoman Tameika Isaac Devine, a strong mayor opponent and a member of Communities United’s steering committee, kicked off the yard sign effort Friday with a recorded telephone message to residents asking if they would be willing to put a sign on their property.
Besides Devine, Duvall and Smith, the steering committee includes City Councilwoman Leona Plaugh; NAACP state president Lonnie Randolph; Republican activist Rusty DePass; Cottontown neighborhood leader Ellen Cooper; Walda Wildman, a GOP activist and an expert in public finance; and, as its chief fundraiser, ex-City Councilman Daniel Rickenmann, among others.
Some of the 50 to 60 volunteers working to block the change don’t want to be publicly identified because their companies do work for the city and they worry about being punished for opposing the referendum, Smith said.
“We are a government town, and people are reluctant to oppose the power structure publicly,” said Smith, who remains a community activist after 20 years in elected politics.
Communities United is holding a news conference Tuesday in north Columbia to outline its opposition to a strong mayor system.
The group views itself as a David to the Goliath forces behind converting the part-time mayor into a chief executive with the power to run the city’s day-to-day operations and to hire and fire its 2,300 employees.
Goliath would be a coalition led by the Greater Columbia Chamber of Commerce that has teamed with Mayor Steve Benjamin and two other council members who favor the strong-mayor system.
Chamber leaders helped create another new group, Columbia Citizens for Better Government, and forged a strategy that has included hiring political and media strategists along with a company specializing in ballot initiatives to mount a three-week petition drive that in early September forced the referendum on a reluctant City Council.
The chamber and Citizens for Better Government have raised an undisclosed sum and have aired their first television ad to encourage a strong-mayor system.
Richard Quinn, of the political and media consulting firm Richard Quinn & Associates, said donors were promised anonymity because, “Nobody wants to be in anybody’s crosshairs,” meaning advocates, too, are afraid of pushback from the majority of City Council, which opposes the change.
Origins of ‘David’
Then as now, critics argue that Benjamin and the coalition are pushing too fast to pass the measure before ordinary people can understand its implications.
“I have a long history, since the sixth grade, of getting into fights when I feel I’m being bullied,” Smith said. “That’s what got me. Were we going to let this happen and have it shoved down our throats?”
Communities United announced its existence in mid-September when it called on council to separate this week’s municipal election from the vote on form of government.
They were combating what they believe is the coordinated effort between Benjamin and the chamber to tilt passage of a referendum by tying it to his political coattails.
“I think the (referendum) campaign merged with the mayor’s campaign and the library campaign to become the same political campaign,” said Duvall, a municipal government expert.
“They took advantage of the combination of those campaigns ... and that the Benjamin popularity would pull it through,” Duvall said.
Benjamin’s $500,000 campaign won easily on Tuesday by taking all but 12 of the 69 precincts where voters went to the polls in an election where turnout was a bit more than 20 percent, according to election figures.
People who favor a strong mayor argue that an elected chief executive would be more efficient and accountable because voters would know who to blame when things go wrong.
“If there was any kind of trigger,” chamber leader Lee Bussell said of the push for a change, “it would have been the whole process around the Bull Street issue.”
When council again rejected a strong mayor referendum Aug. 13, Bussell warned them: “We intend to move forward with a petition.”
Proponents also say that city leaders have discussed the change for more than a decade, enough time for voters to be able to make an informed choice. Council has voted on whether to allow a referendum five times since the spring of 2012.
Smith said because council bickered doesn’t mean the public understood the issue, let alone the intricacies.
“Our strategy is to educate,” she said.
But a citywide education campaign takes time, organization and money. Opponents have little of the first and last of those ingredients – so they hope to persuade through person-to-person conversations and a request that media companies co-sponsor a televised debate.
“They don’t want a debate because they’re so far out front,” Duvall said of strong-mayor forces. “And it’s so easy for us to change people’s minds.”
More likely, opponents will have to rely on email blasts to their friends, handing out fliers to civic, neighborhood and church groups, door hangers, yard signs and maybe a radio spot or two.
“We’re telling people just to take a piece of newsprint and write ‘No,’ on it,” Smith said. “It’s a grass-roots, one-to-one campaign.”
On Friday, Smith said donations that earlier had reached about $5,000 had tripled as the vote draws closer.
Duvall and Smith acknowledge they were unprepared for how strongly strong-mayor allies would push for a vote or that they could pull off a 12,000-signature petition to force council’s hand.
“I didn’t see it coming,” said Duvall, who spent a career advising municipal officials and politicians about operating city governments. “I thought we had (a referendum) bottled up. I thought there were enough votes (on council) to keep it from happening.
“But I didn’t expect professional petitioners,” he said.
Led by the chamber, proponents of change hired National Ballot Access, a family-run ballot initiative firm in Lawrenceville, Ga., which concentrates on conservative causes.
National Ballot Access used paid and volunteer workers to fan out in Columbia to gather signatures.
First, workers hit city festivals, shopping centers and grocery stores before turning to voter registration lists to target people eligible to vote in a citywide referendum, Quinn said.
Smith said opponents also hadn’t expected that Benjamin would call unscheduled council meetings that forced some on council to return to Columbia from vacation. During the often-heated debate, he accused resistant council members of trying to disenfranchise voters by denying them access to a ballot.
Benjamin also said that splitting the council election from the referendum was a waste because taxpayers would have to pay for two elections.
The mayor has worked publicly since his first election for the change. In May at his re-election announcement – five days after council voted against a referendum – Benjamin said he would continue to push the issue. “If council chooses not to (allow a referendum), then we’ll take it to the people,” he said.
Bussell said the effort to change the form of government was hampered by the death late last month of former chamber director Ike McLeese, one of its key strategists. But the coalition’s last-push strategy will be hammered out next week, Bussell said.
The key will be which side gets more of its motivated backers to the polls.