Scoppe: Columbia government a radical departure from U.S. model

Associate EditorNovember 16, 2013 

— AS POWERLESS as our governor is, as unaccountable as so many state agencies are as a result of that, it could be worse.

Imagine the governor was merely a member of the Legislature, with nothing to distinguish her from the other legislators except a cool, albeit empty, title.

And the governor couldn’t hire or fire any agency heads, had no part in making sure the laws passed by the Legislature were implemented.

Imagine that the person in charge of the executive branch of government was someone appointed by the Legislature. So when something went wrong in state agencies, this largely anonymous person responsible for overseeing those agencies wouldn’t have to answer to the public. All she’d have to do is prevent a majority of the 170 legislators from firing her.

Of course, we already have this on a small scale, in the state Budget and Control Board, where the largely anonymous executive director of one of the state’s largest agencies works for the governor and four other separately elected state officials, all of whom have equal say over who runs the agency. And we know how well that works.

We also have it in the city of Columbia.

That’s the system that voters will be asked to change on Dec. 3.

To hear critics talk about the strong-mayor model, you’d think that letting a mayor run city departments was an unprecedented concept. And not just unprecedented but an invitation to corruption and the demise of representative democracy.

Every time I hear these claims, I find myself thinking there must be some other proposal on the table that I’m not familiar with.

Because the proposal I’m familiar with is based on the model of governance embedded in the U.S. Constitution. It’s the model practiced to greater or lesser degree by all 50 states. It’s the model that has legislators write the laws and pass the budget that the elected head of the executive branch of government implements. It’s the model that empowers legislators to pass a new law to overturn just about any decision the elected head of the government makes.

No one has managed to explain how it is that a mayor can be a dictator — that seems to be the favorite criticism in the run-up to next month’s vote — when he 1) must be elected every four years and 2) must run the government according to the rules and budget approved by the City Council. And no one has been able to explain this because it’s not definitionally possible.

Can an empowered mayor be corrupt? Of course. Just like city council members can be corrupt and legislators can be corrupt and governors can be corrupt. Corruption is a risk we take any time we give anyone any power to do anything.

But there is equal if not greater risk when our fear of corruption cows us into diffusing power so much that no one can act expeditiously and decisively and authoritatively when the circumstances demand — and no one can be held responsible for the failure to act. Like when the police chief has a mental meltdown and has to be replaced. Now.

Granted, the strong-mayor form of government is not precisely the same as the standard U.S. model, with its separation of powers and checks and balances. It makes the mayor not only the head of the executive but also a member of the legislative branch. That’s like giving the governor a vote in the Legislature, or the president a vote in the Congress.

The only thing more bizarre than that arrangement is the fact that it is the creation of our Legislature, which has given our own governor far, far less power than the standard U.S. model because it distrusts nothing more than empowered executives.

I see no good reason that a mayor who runs the executive should also get a vote in the legislative branch. Unfortunately, we are limited to the choices that our Legislature has seen fit to give us.

So the question is whether we’re better off with a mayor who isn’t really a mayor, or with a mayor who is a mayor and also gets one of seven votes on City Council.

The question is whether we’d be more likely to have a Police Department that could be nimble enough to tackle gang violence if the police chief answered to an elected mayor, or to a city manager whose main management challenge is figuring out how to please the seven equally empowered elected officials she works for.

The question is whether the City Council would be more likely to face up to years of shoddy bookkeeping, tardy and inaccurate financial statements, budget deficits and overall ineptitude when the person who has to carry out the results of such irresponsible budget choices is a bureaucrat, or an elected official.

The question is whether the City Council is more likely to get pushback on all of its short-sighted decisions from someone who works for the council, or someone who is elected. That pushback, by the way, is the purpose of the checks and balances in our federal system.

If Columbia were a model of good governance, then there would be no need for change. Sort of like there would be no need for South Carolina to experiment with the American system of government if our state were a model of good governance. But it’s not.

Deliberation and compromise are essential components of representative democracy. But they are primarily components of the law- writing process. Once the law is written, we need someone with the authority to implement that law, and to make personnel decisions and policy changes — in keeping with the law — in response to changing circumstances.

There’s nothing radical about that system. What’s radical is its absence.

Ms. Scoppe can be reached at cscoppe@thestate.com. Follow her on Twitter @CindiScoppe.

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