Opinion

Editorial: Empowering Columbia’s mayor would strengthen city

November 10, 2013 

— Inside

IN RE-ELECTING him by a 2-1 margin, Columbia voters showed overwhelming support for Mayor Steve Benjamin and his vision of making South Carolina’s capital “the most talented, educated and entrepreneurial city in the Southeast.”

But Mr. Benjamin lacks the authority to implement his voter-backed vision. Under the current council-manager form of government, an unelected manager controls day-to-day operations and, ultimately, Columbia’s destiny, not the mayor voters choose thinking he directs the city.

Voters can — and should — remedy that on Dec. 3 by saying “yes” to a referendum asking whether Columbia’s mayor should be a full-time, empowered executive who oversees daily operations, including hiring and firing.

While Mr. Benjamin would become the first to lead under the mayor-council — or strong-mayor — system, this is not about him or any future mayor. This is about building a strong and vibrant Columbia by making its government more accountable, effective and responsive. It’s a change this editorial board has advocated for at least 15 years.

Columbia’s council-manager system is inefficient and unaccountable. It is slow and plodding; decisions take far too long, if they are ever made. In addition, the city manager works for seven elected bosses, including the mayor, who has no more power than council members. Power is so diffused that when the ball is dropped, everyone can claim a lack of responsibility.

That’s no way to run a city on the cusp of tremendous growth. From the planned mega-development on the old State Hospital site on Bull Street to the resurging Main Street to the promise of Innovista to unprecedented infrastructure improvements, Columbia is poised to explode.

But the city needs the definitive — and accountable — leadership of an empowered mayor to capitalize on opportunities headed its way. A strong mayor would spend every day working to position the city for success. The buck would stop at his office. When things go awry, the mayor would be compelled to take responsibility and act quickly — or face the wrath of voters.

While some claim the public doesn’t want a strong mayor, the evidence says otherwise. Polls show that a broad cross-section of voters supports the change. Nearly 12,000 eligible voters signed a petition that forced the referendum. That’s 80 percent of the number who turned out on Tuesday, when voters reelected the leading proponent of the change, Mr. Benjamin, in a landslide.

On Dec. 3, Columbians should take the next step and empower their mayor.

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