Bolton: Talk of a strong mayor in Columbia being a big, bad czar is simply nonsense

Associate EditorNovember 22, 2013 

Warren Bolton

TIM DOMINICK/TDOMINICK@THESTATE.

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    To read my Thursday column, scan the code or go to thestate.com/endorsements.

    Coming Sunday: Why strong mayor, while not perfect, is the better system of government for Columbia.

— COLUMBIA voters are being asked to place their government in the hands of a big, bad czar of a mayor who would be paid a huge salary, might not show up to work at City Hall and is likely in the hunt for an outside job.

That outlandish caricature is the compilation of opponents’ negative portrayals of a strong mayor. No doubt, some people simply don’t know any better. But some do; and they’re doling out a steady flow of red herrings, misleading rhetoric and bad information to strike fear among voters, who are being asked to decide in a Dec. 3 referendum whether Columbia’s mayor should be a full-time executive who runs day-to-day operations of the city, including hiring and firing.

While strong mayor isn’t a perfect form of government, it’s not the scourge some are suggesting it is. In a Thursday column, I discussed some of the legitimate concerns that people have raised about the proposed change, ranging from the fact that it would take power away from City Council members and neighborhoods to the fear of possible cronyism or corruption.

Although those concerns aren’t as detrimental as they are presented to be, they are far more understandable and substantive than the misleading information being disseminated. Some of the claims are so far-fetched that voters are likely to reject them on their face.

But to be on the safe side, let’s debunk a few.

First up, let’s consider obvious red herrings meant to get people’s blood pressure up and their minds focused away from the real issue of empowering the mayor to produce a more efficient, accountable city government. Some folks have been injecting seemingly legitimate questions that in fact are meant to mislead: Will the mayor be able to moonlight, allowing him to draw two salaries? Will he be required to work full-time like other employees? Will he have regular office hours?

For the record, Mayor Steve Benjamin has said that if strong mayor is adopted, that would be the only job he would occupy.

But let’s be real. While the council certainly has to work out things such as salary, the only reason to harp on questions regarding such details as office hours and whether the mayor can work another job is to incite citizens.

I’ve been surprised by how many people have raised these issues as if they are paramount. In fact, the inquiries make it appear that a strong mayor would somehow be a special case, unlike other elected officials chosen by voters.

But the truth is that when it comes to elected positions — full-time or part-time — there are few, if any, requirements for how much time those who occupy those offices must spend doing their jobs. Ever checked to see what hours the sheriff or the governor or other elected officials are required to work? What requires them to even be in the office?

And other than ethics rules that limit conflicts of interest, there’s nothing that says those public servants can’t moonlight. The only real leverage is the political expectation — one enforced by voters — that full-time folks will work full-time for the people only. You’d be hard-pressed to find lots of elected officials who occupy full-time public positions and are paid a commensurate salary seeking another full-time job.

Here are some other misplaced concerns about strong mayor:

•  The mayor would be a czar. A dictator. Yes, the mayor would run daily operations, including hiring and firing. But the claim that he would have absolute power is nonsense. Any mayor expecting to live the life of a dictator will be sadly disappointed: He would have only one vote on the seven-member City Council, which still would set the budget and policy and make local laws. Oh, and he would have to run for re-election every four years. The only way he runs roughshod over the city is if the council, the business community, neighborhood groups, the media and individual voters simply disengage.

•  It would be trampling on the representative form of government. How’s that? The mayor-council system is modeled after the U.S. government, in which lawmakers make laws and pass the budget and the elected executive then implements the laws and budget.

•  Having the entire council share power is responsible and accountable and would best benefit the entire community. The fact is that the current council-manager system is anti-accountability. It diffuses power among eight people (the eighth being the city manager) and makes it impossible to hold anyone responsible. The unelected city manager reports to seven bosses with seven different agendas. With eight people sharing the power, when things go awry we often don’t get anyone to step up and claim responsibility.

Under strong mayor, we would know whose job it is to fix problems. That person would have to act quickly to make changes rather than playing the blame game and wasting precious time needed to correct matters.

•  If the mayor proves to be ineffective, he can’t be terminated because of his guaranteed term of office. Hunh? This is called representative democracy. We elect folks with the hopes they will do an admirable job. Many don’t — and it’s not just strong mayors. Whether they’re city council members, county council members or other elected officials, people fail. They disappoint us. We have to wait until their terms are up and vote them out of office.

•  The mayor may lack the training, education and experience in municipal administration and finance to oversee day-to-day operations. Ahem. Ever heard of hiring a city manager? Strong mayors do it all the time. Mayor Benjamin says he plans to do so as well.

•  The 4-2-1 election method that has been in effect for 30 years would be undercut by strong mayor. The 4-2-1 system, in which four council members are elected from districts and two are chosen at-large along with a mayor, would be unchanged.

While there certainly are some legitimate questions to raise about strong mayor — none of which I believe is enough reason for Columbia to reject it — the suggestion that an empowered elected executive would be a bullying bogeyman who unleashes an era of corruption on the city is a gross distortion.

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

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