Bolton: Columbia’s council must get along — for the city’s sake

Associate EditorNovember 14, 2013 

Warren Bolton

TIM DOMINICK/TDOMINICK@THESTATE.

— BULLYING. Threats. Strained relationships. Secrecy. Political hijinks. Power struggles.

No, that’s not a characterization of shenanigans occurring on Capitol Hill or a preview of the new season of the hit BET show “Scandal.”

It’s the environment on Columbia City Council, according to incumbents who met with our editorial board prior to last week’s municipal election. Whether all or any of the charges are true, they are the perceptions under which some operate on the council.

While the election is over and the make up of the City Council is unchanged, there’s a lot still to be settled. The council won’t conduct the people’s business as effectively as it should until some of the rifts are mended. While the mayor and council members don’t have to be blood brothers and sisters, they must be civil enough to avoid contentious battles that leave the proverbial blood on the floor of their newly refurbished chambers.

Although council members Leona Plaugh and Moe Baddourah appeared separately before our editorial board, they made some of the same claims about the council in general and Mayor Steve Benjamin in particular. They spoke of an environment in which key issues are sometimes rammed through without giving the full council or the public enough information to gain a real understanding. The rushed approval of the agreement that will guide the development of the old State Hospital site on Bull Street was among the examples cited.

Ms. Plaugh and Mr. Baddourah also said Mayor Benjamin has at times threatened to take action against council members if they attempted to share with the public information on matters discussed in executive session or documents declared covered under attorney-client privilege. Among the documents, they said, was a memo written by attorneys that warned the council against approving the Bull Street development agreement without identifying funding to pay for the infrastructure commitments.

“The mayor has threatened all of us if we released anything out of executive session,” Ms. Plaugh said.

Mr. Baddourah said the mayor had threatened to have him removed from the council.

Mr. Benjamin rejects the notion that issues have been too rushed and denies he has threatened council members. He said that he has worked to build consensus but that there are times when the council hasn’t moved deliberately, bringing things to a point where someone has to act. Allowing Bull Street to linger could have been detrimental to the project, he said.

He reiterated what he said during his first run for mayor in 2010: While he will work for consensus, he also is willing to be the fourth vote to move critical matters forward at critical moments.

While rebuffing claims he threatened members, Mr. Benjamin did acknowledge that he has at times asked the city attorney to counsel the body on what the repercussions could be if members breached confidentiality.

He said council members shouldn’t be sharing confidential documents; that can cause disruptions and damage the city’s ability to effectively conduct business. Even so, he said, if council members want to reveal documents covered under attorney-client privilege, all they need to do is formally ask the council. He said the council routinely has agreed to do so when a member has made the request.

As far as the Bull Street memo is concerned, “No one ever asked to waive privilege on that document,” Mr. Benjamin said.

Whatever the case may be, it is clear that there are some frayed relationships on City Council that must be mended.

Particularly while Mr. Baddourah was making a pitch to voters to oust Mr. Benjamin and elevate him to mayor, their strained relationship became obvious as they jousted over one issue after another. There have been some tense moments between the mayor and Ms. Plaugh as well.

While Councilwoman Tameika Isaac Devine and Mr. Benjamin long have been friends, there have been a time or two in recent months when she has shown frustration on the council — and with the mayor.

When I asked Ms. Devine about what needs to happen to improve the city’s relationship with Richland County and other area governments, she said that while that is important, the council’s priority should be in-house. “I think we need to focus on our own relations first,” she said.

Indeed. It’s imperative that this new but old council work to develop a cohesiveness. While Columbia is in a prime position for explosive growth, a divided or contentious council could blow some — or many — of the opportunities on the city’s landscape.

Bull Street is a perfect example. If successful, the mega-development could have a transformative effect on not only Columbia but the Midlands. But for it to have optimal opportunity to succeed, long term it’s going to need broader support than the slim 4-3 margin by which the development agreement was approved.

Mr. Baddourah and Ms. Plaugh both came into their interviews with a “Bull Street was a bad deal then and it’s a bad deal now” attitude.

When asked how he will approach Bull Street now that the city has committed its support, Mr. Baddourah huffed: “There are no good answers to Bull Street. All I can tell you is it’s a bad deal.”

But there are some good signs. Ms. Plaugh and Ms. Devine, both of whom who joined Mr. Baddourah in opposing the quick approval of the agreement, said they understand the need to make it work. “I’m very excited about Bull Street,” Ms. Devine said.

Frankly, the entire council ought to be excited about the prospects of not only Bull Street but opportunities that exist to improve the city at large. So excited that its members are willing to work through their differences, build consensus and pursue compromise, be more forthcoming with the public and be deliberate in vetting issues while working to avoid unnecessary and harmful delays.

Considering the possibility of Columbia’s mayor being empowered to oversee daily operations, it’s important for the mayor and council to build workable relationships now. Some will suggest that the back and forth between the mayor and some on the council is yet another reason for Columbia to avoid the strong mayor. Nonsense. First of all, this is happening absent strong mayor. Secondly, this is more about personalities than structure.

Whether under strong mayor or the current council-manager structure, members of City Council must decide to be big boys and girls and get along for the sake of the city and those who entrusted them to serve.

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

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