Joe Riley: Why Columbia needs a strong mayor

Guest ColumnistNovember 16, 2013 

Charleston Mayor Joe Riley


— I have a very deep and long-standing affection for the city of Columbia. Of course, as the state capital, Columbia is important to every citizen in South Carolina.

I firmly believe the strong-mayor form of government is in the best interest of the city of Columbia and thereby the state of South Carolina.

Clarity of who is responsible is important in a democracy. Citizens are empowered when they know exactly who to blame, hold accountable and give thanks to when things go well. When responsibility is obfuscated, citizens are frustrated, and their power to have their wishes effectively heard is diminished. With a strong-mayor system, it is perfectly clear where the buck stops: The mayor is responsible. The citizens can hold him accountable.

Citizens have numerous ways to interact with their mayor, and the mayor has so many opportunities to gain information, to feel the heartbeat of the citizens. He feels their frustrations. He gets clear explanations of their problems, worries, concerns or aspirations. So for the mayor not to be directly responsible for the administration of the city is nonsensical. A mayor is best capable because of this direct relationship with the citizens to help, along with city council, set the right priorities and provide the leadership to get things done.

Critics say a mayor isn’t a professional administrator. Of course not. The mayor hires professionals. The mayor is the community’s leader. Any good mayor will select the very best staff to help him achieve the goals of his citizens. Some worry that a mayor will hire political hacks or cronies. That is just as likely to happen as a football coach naming his good friend’s child as quarterback rather than the best and most talented quarterback on the team.

A good mayor will select the best administrator, chief financial officer, police chief, recreation director or other important positions because he knows his success is directly dependent upon their capacity. Just as the head of any good corporation hires the very best people he can to make sure the company is successful, the mayor applies the same leadership to his staff, inspiring the people who work with him, seeking to excel and helping the city achieve all of its goals.

Some argue that a strong mayor weakens city council. Actually, it is just the opposite. The city-manager system merely creates a fiction that the city council is stronger, because there is no strong mayor. The fact is that the council members do not have nearly the leverage with the city manager, whom they really are not supposed to tell what to do, that they would working with their fellow elected official.

The mayor, who unlike a manger is supposed to have his own agenda, needs the support of city council. No initiative the mayor is interested in can pass city council without a majority vote. Certainly, the budget — which the mayor will present to city council — cannot be passed without a majority of council votes. And the engagement with city council helps the mayor makes better decisions. Strong-mayor means strong council.

I write this not only as someone who has been elected to the strong-mayor form 10 times but also as a student of the American city, having worked with mayors across our country and served as president of the U.S. Conference of Mayors. Almost all very successful cities and very successful mayors are hands-on, full-time mayors who have the executive responsibility — working with city council and the community — to move their city forward.

The closer elected officials are to the people, the better is the government. The clearer it is for the citizens to understand who is to blame or who is to praise for their city’s progress or lack thereof, the better the city is. Empowered citizens who clearly know where the buck stops will, through the ballot box, always produce a better community. For Columbia, I strongly believe it is time for the strong-mayor/strong-council form of government.

Mr. Riley is mayor of Charleston; contact him at

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