Bolton: Columbia council members struggle with giving up power to mayor

Associate EditorNovember 10, 2013 

Warren Bolton

TIM DOMINICK/TDOMINICK@THESTATE.

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    See videos of council members discussing strong-mayor and read other commentary on the topic at thestate.com/endorsements

THIS WON’T shock you, but the four members of Columbia City Council who fought so hard to prevent a referendum on whether the mayor should be an empowered executive who runs day-to-day affairs believe it would be a mistake for voters to approve the change.

Sam Davis, Tameika Isaac Devine and Leona Plaugh — who were re-elected to the council — and Moe Baddourah, who lost his bid to become mayor but still has time on his council term, all declared strong opposition to strong mayor during endorsement interviews with our editorial board in the weeks prior to Tuesday’s election.

But while they gave lengthy and varied reasons why they oppose strong mayor, none mentioned the biggest, most personal drawback for council members: If the mayor is empowered, council members would lose some power and influence. No, council members won’t be powerless as some people suggest: They still would set the budget and policy and make local laws; the mayor still would have only one vote on the seven-member body.

Currently, the council’s seven members stand as equals as they supervise the professional manager who runs the day-to-day operations. But if the mayor is empowered, the city manager would answer to him and not the council.

Such a change would make it much more difficult for council members to meddle in daily affairs — whether it’s to get a favor for a constituent, get a favored person hired in a given department or insist that more police officers be posted on a street in their district. That’s the way it should be.

There is no doubt in my mind that Columbia’s government would be more effective and accountable with this change. That said, I’d likely be upset too if I were on the council. I mean, if I’ve been able to bring home the bacon and get pats on the back and be the go-to guy for my district or for citizens at-large, I’d have a problem with someone taking some of that clout away. That’s a human reaction.

But at some point along the way, those elected to lead must look out for what’s best for the people and not what’s best for their own personal political stature. And that’s what needs to happen in this instance: If voters approve this change on Dec. 3, those council members who oppose it might be unhappy, but they are duty-bound to get over it, play by the new rules and work with the mayor in the best interest of our capital city.

Frankly, that’s what I expect to happen. But for the moment, these council members are none too happy about the possibility. Even so, most said that while they have made their feelings known, they haven’t determined whether they will actively campaign against strong mayor.

Of course, they have every right to. Mayor Steve Benjamin certainly has stated his case publicly and actively.

Here’s a taste of what the council members shared during their visits:

Councilman Baddourah said that during his door-to-door campaign, both for his successful council race and for his more recent unsuccessful run for mayor, he talked with thousands of people and got very little inquiry about changing the form of government. “They want basic services,” he said.

Councilman Davis said he has always opposed strong mayor because it puts too much power in one person’s hands, opening up the possibility for corruption and patronage as has occurred in places such as Detroit and Chicago. He lamented the possibility of a new mayor coming into office and firing people, local citizens, just because they aren’t “in the loop, so to speak.”

“I don’t want any mayor to play me against my colleagues on a project that he wants,” Councilman Davis said. Nor does he want to point out priority projects in his district only to have the mayor to say “ ‘You’ve got to wait; that’s not in my budget.’ What do I go back and tell my constituents?”

“My opposition to that form of government has nothing to do with Steve Benjamin,” he said. “Steve Benjamin is my friend, always has been. He is now and will be regardless of the outcome. My basic concern about that is what happens down the road. You’ve got a good mayor now — visionary, making things happen. But what happens when you get a nut in there? You get those kinds of people.”

Both Ms. Devine and Ms. Plaugh said one of their biggest concerns about strong mayor is that it would replace a professional manager with a politician who might not be capable of running a large city government.

“You need a professional as opposed to a political manager,” said Ms. Plaugh, who was elected to City Council after being forced out as city manager.

She noted that whoever runs city government will be responsible for 2,300 employees and hundreds of millions of dollars in public money, and she said that “I am very concerned that we have somebody extremely capable in that capacity running the city.”

Councilwoman Devine said that there is no real reason to change the form of government. She believes that the current form is most responsive and responsible.

She said that people stress the need for a strong mayor system to allow the mayor to implement his vision but that Mr. Benjamin has been able to do that — with the council’s aid — under the current system. “Having a mayor with vision is one thing,” she said. “Having someone who is hired to deal with day-to-day operation is another thing.”

Yes, it is. And on Dec. 3, the people could — and, I dare say, should — choose to make that person one and the same.

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


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