Bolton: Opponents of strong mayor in Columbia have some legitimate concerns

Associate EditorNovember 21, 2013 

Warren Bolton

TIM DOMINICK/TDOMINICK@THESTATE.

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    Coming Friday: A look at red herrings, misleading rhetoric and bad information about strong mayor.

WHILE SOME respected elected and community leaders strongly oppose making Columbia’s mayor an empowered executive who runs the city’s day-to-day operations, they don’t present very many legitimate arguments against the change.

Still, those arguments — although not as detrimental as they’re made out to be — deserve airing. Changing the city’s form of government is no small matter, and it’s important for voters to examine both the pros and the cons.

This column explores some of the legitimate concerns. On Friday, I’ll expose the red herrings and misleading rhetoric meant to frighten people into thinking a strong mayor would be an all-powerful czar who would ruin our capital city. And on Sunday, I’ll tell you why strong mayor, while not perfect, is the better system for Columbia.

But first things first. Here’s a look at some of the legitimate concerns people have about strong mayor:

•  Empowering an elected executive would reduce Columbia City Council members’ power and influence. That’s true. A strong mayor would manage day-to-day operations; the city manager would work for him. That means City Council, which now hires, fires and supervises the city manager, would lose direct oversight of that key position.

Council members no longer would be able to pick up the phone and make demands of an appointed manager who depends on their vote to remain employed. Council members who represent districts, who have typically exercised sole authority over projects in their areas, would have to work with an empowered mayor rather than a city manager they (supposedly) review annually.

The change would transform an environment in which council members too freely — and outside of the bounds of the law — meddle in daily affairs. Even under the current structure, council members are not supposed to approach the city manager or department heads to get favors for constituents, get close acquaintances hired or get police officers posted on a given street in their district.

Charleston Mayor Joe Riley likely would disagree that the council loses any power under strong mayor. In a column Sunday in The State, he wrote that Columbia’s current council-manager system only makes it appear as if the council is strong, when really it isn’t. Whereas the council is barred by law from interfering with the city manager, a strong mayor would work side-by-side with the council and would be dependent on the council to help him succeed.

“The mayor, who unlike a manager is supposed to have his own agenda, needs the support of city council,” he wrote. “No initiative the mayor is interested in can pass city council without a majority vote. … And the engagement with city council helps the mayor make better decisions. Strong-mayor means strong council.”

•  Neighborhoods would lose some influence because their council members would be weakened. That’s also true. Neighborhoods long have wielded much power in the city; that’s especially true when it comes to their influence over council members elected on the district level. But under strong mayor, neighborhood leaders wouldn’t have the luxury of calling a council member to get him or her to lean — illegally — on the city manager, a department head or a city employee. That said, they’d be more than able to approach the mayor, who will be looking at matters from a citywide perspective rather than taking a myopic view that might not benefit Columbia as a whole.

•  A strong mayor could adopt an agenda that ignores concerns of minorities and communities that lack political clout. That’s an understandable concern. But it would be political suicide for a mayor to overlook neighborhoods or powerful voting blocs such as black voters. His tenure would be short-lived. And, as Mayor Riley pointed out, a mayor who doesn’t play ball with council members as they represent their constituents and push agendas of their own will have problems getting them to approve the budget, policies and local laws needed to support his vision.

•  A strong mayor could become corrupt. While we expect more of those we choose to lead us, yes, they sometimes fail us. But Columbia could have corrupt mayors and council members — and city managers — under the current system.

•  The mayor might feel beholden to big-money, powerful special-interest groups such as the business community. Certainly this would be a concern. You don’t want a mayor taking short cuts or doing special favors for campaign donors or people who can do something for him. But, again, this could happen now, with any member of the council. A vigilant City Council, engaged citizens and voters, curious media watch dogs and others would provide necessary checks on the mayor’s relationships and behavior.

•  A mayor could hire cronies and play favorites with jobs. Some people fear that newly elected mayors could enter office and turn out large numbers of employees for nothing other than political reasons. Councilman Sam Davis said he’d hate to see Columbians who need their jobs lose their livelihood because of the outcome of a political race. But personnel rules protect most city employees, and as Mayor Riley noted, a mayor with any political savvy would know better than hiring people who didn’t have the expertise to do the job well.

•  A mayor might use his new-found authority to lord it over the council and others to get his way. “I don’t want any mayor to play me against my colleagues on a project that he wants,” Councilman Davis said.

•  A trained professional is needed to run the city. Certainly it helps to have someone knowledgeable about the operations of municipal government to oversee the daily details. But in most instances, that’s what strong mayors do: They hire a professional staff to provide administrative leadership as he oversees them, carries out policy and does the broad visioning. For his part, Mayor Steve Benjamin says he does intend to hire a manager, but to do so by shifting around money already in the city budget rather than asking the council for additional funds.

One of the more legitimate concerns that people haven’t talked much about is the fact that the mayor, the elected executive, would be a voting member of City Council, the legislative body. Ideally, the mayor would not be a voting member of the council; that’s the way it is in some cities around the country. But we don’t have that option under S.C. law.

All of these concerns are legitimate points to raise as we continue this discussion leading up to the Dec. 3 vote to determine whether Columbia switches from the council-manager system to strong mayor. But here’s the important thing to keep in mind: The idea isn’t to select the perfect form of government — there is no such thing — or even the safest; it’s to choose the one that gives the city the best chance to reach its full potential.

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

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