Bolton: Columbia would benefit from indisputable elected leader

Associate EditorNovember 24, 2013 

Warren Bolton

TIM DOMINICK/TDOMINICK@THESTATE.

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To read my Thursday and Friday columns as well as other commentary on this topic, scan the code or go to thestate.com/endorsements.

WHILE OPPONENTS have raised some legitimate concerns about implementing strong mayor in Columbia, the upside of adopting a more efficient, accountable governing structure that would better serve citizens and help the city realize potential it has sat on for years far outweighs the possible drawbacks.

In two previous columns, which ran on Thursday and Friday, I explored the legitimate concerns raised about strong mayor as well as red herrings and misleading information that negatively portray that form of government. Today, let’s consider positive aspects of strong mayor that make it the better system for Columbia going forward.

•  Having a strong mayor directly accountable to the people to serve as the city’s unequivocal leader is far better than having a bureaucrat who answers to seven different bosses. As it stands, an unelected city manager who is unaccountable to citizens essentially fills the role many would associate with the title of “mayor.” A manager who answers to seven bosses lacks the authority and flexibility to take decisive action. Yet the unelected manager is often, and inappropriately, called on to make political decisions that only get her into trouble — with citizens and with her bosses on council.

• A strong mayor for Columbia would benefit the entire region. The capital city’s mayor is looked to as the head of the Midlands. While the mayor doesn’t have any official authority in unincorporated Lexington and Richland counties or their municipalities, the City Council plays a large role in determining the fate of the region (a role that people especially outside the city assume is played by the mayor). As Columbia goes, so goes, for the most part, the surrounding area.

A few months back, a Richland County Council member told me that top executives looking to move to the area don’t want to talk with city or county council members; they want to sit down with the mayor. While Columbia mayors over the years have been helpful in luring new industry to the Midlands, the fact is that they have had no real power to make decisions or even assure prospects that the city will be open to making a deal. Empowering Columbia’s mayor would greatly enhance his ability to market the city as well as the region.

•  A strong mayor would be charged with crafting and articulating a clear vision for the city. Under the council-manager form, the city often gets bogged down on important issues and initiatives. There is no stated vision and no one empowered to speak and act with authority. Not only would a strong mayor be empowered by voters to act, but he or she would be able to organize governmental functions so that they support a focused vision. Right now, there is a disconnect between the manager and any political vision that may exist; as a result, initiatives often take too long to get started or don’t get done.

•  There would be no disputing who’s in charge and who’s responsible. “The buck stops here,” would actually have meaning in the context of what’s happening, for better or worse, within Columbia’s government. Right now, power is diffused between the mayor, six council members and the city manager. But while they all have power, no one is in charge, and no one is accountable. An empowered executive would have to be responsive to voters and would have to acknowledge when something is wrong and make corrections quickly — or risk being ousted in the next election.

•  Higher caliber candidates would more consistently seek the serve as mayor. Columbia’s council-manager system that relegates the mayor to council-member status doesn’t draw many top-notch candidates. What strong, qualified leader wants to run for a part-time, powerless mayor’s position? Over the past quarter century, the race for mayor has more often than not produced a lean field of candidates with only one strong option. The exceptions are the 1990 race in which Bob Coble defeated then-Mayor Patton Adams and the 2010 race in which Steve Benjamin defeated Kirkman Finlay and Steve Morrison.

•  A mayor who works exclusively for Columbia would be devoted to the city, not outside interests. With the position being part-time, mayors naturally have full-time jobs to feed their families. But that sometimes creates situations in which the city’s top elected leader must remove himself from discussions — and votes — on critical issues because of business relationships. Columbia’s leader should be wholly invested and involved in the ongoing business of the city.

• Knowing who is in control gives citizens power. In a column in The State last Sunday, Charleston Mayor Joe Riley wrote: “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.”

Without a doubt, making this change would give mayors more power than most Columbians are used to. It’s understandable that this makes some people uncomfortable, even fearful. But that’s the risky and hopeful nature of our representative democracy: We choose leaders and then trust them to be good stewards of that trust that people have given him. If they’re not, voters can fire them at the ballot box.

I’m convinced Columbia would stand a better chance of reaching its potential if it is guided by a full-time elected executive. For that to happen, on Dec. 3, Columbia voters must empower the mayor to do what so many have thought he was able to do for years now: be the unequivocal, indisputable leader of this city.

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

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