What's at stake Tuesday: The strong mayor form of government

cleblanc@thestate.comNovember 24, 2013 

— After months of heated debate and City Council’s votes and counter votes, Columbia residents motivated to go to the polls Tuesday either will make municipal history or hold fast to the status quo.

Some residents argue that they don’t fully understand the implications of a strong-mayor system or how it would differ from the current form of government, led by a hired city manager, which the capital city has had since 1949.

Those pushing for change say city leaders have commissioned a blue ribbon panel and have argued the topic for years, while doing nothing. They say Columbia needs an elected chief executive with the administrative muscle to make decisions quickly so the city can better compete for businesses and the jobs they would bring.

In November, The State newspaper examines answers to some of the questions being raised.

Overall powers

Under each of the three systems of municipal government allowed in South Carolina, the council has the ultimate authority. It makes laws, sets policies and determines annual budgets.

The three forms are defined largely by the distribution of power: 1) A strong-manager (council-manager) form, which Columbia has now; 2) a strong-mayor (mayor-council) form; and 3) a strong-council (council) form. A strong mayor is a chief executive who makes day-to-day decisions and has authority over the city’s workforce. Under Columbia’s current government, the city manager is the chief executive, hired by council.

A strong mayor, just like a strong manager, must operate within the boundaries and policies set by council. A key difference is that a majority of council members can fire a manager. They cannot fire an elected mayor.

Hiring and firing

Columbia’s 2,230 full- and part-time workers are at-will employees, meaning they can be fired by the city manager. But all except 85, who are part-timers, have grievance rights. That means they can fight their dismissal. Ultimately, the manager makes the call. Council has no legal authority to influence hiring and firing decisions except for those of city manager, city attorney and municipal judges.

All of that authority would transfer to a strong mayor if the system changed.

Currently, council members are barred by state law from directly contacting city employees. But that’s a law that council members often break, and seldom are there consequences for breaking it. In practice, city employees are deferential to members of council and heed their requests.

Council’s policy-setting authority over the city’s workforce would not change.

Budgetary controls

The mayor is one of seven voices on council who determine the annual budget and, indirectly, taxes. The city’s money comes from property taxes, fees and other revenues, including transfers of money from accounts, such as water and sewer, into the General Fund.

The General Fund is used to pay for most city functions. Council puts spending limits on the city manager, and council would be able to do the same to a strong mayor.

Currently, Columbia city manager’s spending limit is $49,999 without council’s OK.

The manager listens to council’s directives on spending practices and submits budget recommendations. Council tweaks the recommended budget and votes twice to adopt an annual budget, which by state law must be balanced.

But the manager or strong mayor may move money around within the budget as limited by council.

A strong mayor would fill the same financial role as the city manager.

Job qualifications

State law requires that candidates for City Council, including the mayor’s seat, must be at least 18 years old and be registered to vote in the city by Election Day.

As for a city manager, council sets the qualifications. Columbia City Council has required, at minimum, eight to 10 years of experience in public administration and at least a bachelor’s degree in a relevant field. However, council waived some of those requirements or changed them in hiring the past three city managers.

If a strong mayor is not doing the job effectively, council’s only recourse is to reduce the salary for the position.

Removal of a chief executive

Currently, any member of City Council can be suspended from office by the governor, but only under limited circumstances.

The state constitution permits the governor to act if an elected official has been indicted by a grand jury for a state or federal felony, a crime of “moral turpitude” or if the council member agrees not to fight a pending indictment.

Indictments for some election-law violations also can result in suspension by the governor.

An arrest alone is not a basis for suspension from office. The mayor pro tem serves as mayor while the charges are in court.

Removal from office occurs only upon conviction. The governor then declares the office vacant and a new election is held.

If removal occurs within 180 of the normal election day, the seat is filled as scheduled. If Election Day is more than 180 days after removal, a special election is held on the 13th Tuesday after removal from office.

South Carolina’s constitution, its laws, its Supreme Court rulings and its legal opinions by the attorney general have defined “moral turpitude” as crimes that involve fraud, such as embezzlement or misspending public money for private use. But the arcane term “moral turpitude” ranges from trespassing and Peeping Tom convictions to rape or murder. A 1993 legal analysis for the South Carolina Bar listed 89 crimes that have been deemed violations of moral turpitude.

Mayor’s office vs. manager’s office

Currently, the part-time mayor has three city employees assigned to his office. The mayor is paid $17,500 yearly and has an expense account. Council in October, acknowledging that the mayor’s pay is low for the amount of work the job requires, raised the salary to $75,000 if the form of government stays the same or $160,000 if the referendum is approved.

A strong mayor could seek council’s permission to hire executive administrators to help run the city. Once they are hired, however, council would have no more control of the administrators than it has over any other city employee – which, under the law, is none.

Full-time/part-time

Nothing in state law requires strong mayors to work full time as a city’s chief executive. That’s because most strong mayors in South Carolina are elected in small towns where the elective job pays little.

Columbia’s mayors have said through the years that the hours spent serving the public amount to a full-time job with a part-time salary. Mayor Steve Benjamin has said he will cut ties to his profession as an attorney and dedicate his energy fully to an empowered office.

Effect on 4-2-1

Creation of a strong mayor would have no legal impact on the 4-2-1 elective system the city adopted in 1983 after a court fight. That structure cleared the way for electing Columbia’s first African-American council members.

The 4-2-1 plan requires that council be comprised of a representative from four geographic areas of town, two others to represent the entire city and a mayor who is also elected citywide. Each representative has an equal vote on council, so council members do not have to answer to the mayor. Critics of the current system say it creates seven fiefdoms, or as one put it, “seven Indians and no chief.”

In practice, a strong mayor would dilute the authority of council members because constituents and powerbrokers could go straight to the mayor to get things done instead of turning to their own representative, largely because the mayor would directly supervise city employees, according to detractors of a strong-mayor system. They also say a strong mayor could play favorites with council members who support the mayor’s initiatives.

Outside influences over chief executive

People or organizations that want something from the city now tend to go to their council member or one of the three members elected citywide. Council members then barter with their peers on council for support of their initiatives.

That diffuse power structure both equalizes members’ influence and fractures their authority. Divided authority slows decisions and makes it difficult to assign credit or blame, critics of the current system say. It also invites meddling by council members jockeying for their districts’ agendas.

Opponents of change say the concentration of power in a strong mayor invites abuse.

A strong mayor, who would control the city’s workforce, could punish a council member who does not toe the line by slowing or stopping projects in that member’s district or by interfering with issues favored by that council member.

Still, the mayor would remain one vote on the seven-member council, and any action by council requires a majority vote – four, in most cases. That would not change under a strong-mayor system.

How S.C. cities are managed

Strong mayor is the most popular form of government in South Carolina, used in 145 of 270 municipalities. It is mostly used in small towns. But two of the state’s largest cities, Charleston and North Charleston, have strong mayors.

A strong-council system, which has no mandated chief executive, is second most popular (93 of 270). Mount Pleasant, Summerville and Greer are among the larger cities run by strong councils.

Strong manager is third most common (32 of 270). Most of the state’s larger cities have this form, including Columbia, Rock Hill, Greenville, Sumter, Hilton Head, Florence, Spartanburg, Aiken, Myrtle Beach and Anderson.

Clif LeBlanc

SOURCES: Municipal Association of South Carolina, League of Women Voters of the Columbia Area, S.C. Attorney General legal opinions, S.C. Supreme Court cases, S.C. Bar publication, interviews with municipal-law specialists, research by The State newspaper.

WHAT THE BALLOT WILL SAY

The Municipal Election Commission of the City of Columbia has announced a special election on the question of a change in the form of municipal government for the City of Columbia to be held on Tuesday, December 3, 2013.

Shall the municipality of the City of Columbia change its form of government from Council-Manager form to Mayor-Council form?

YES __

NO __

Those in favor of the question shall deposit a ballot with a check or cross mark in the square after the word ‘YES,’ and those voting against the question shall deposit a ballot with a check or cross mark in the square after the word ‘NO’.”

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