COLUMBIA, SC — With a week to go before Columbia decides whether it wants to change its form of government, the campaigns on both sides have heated up.
On Tuesday, three public forums were held to give residents a chance to learn more about each form of government, while opponents of the strong mayor form made the argument that a change will not curb violence in the city, a key city issue in recent months.
An opposition group, Communities United for a Great Columbia, made its case that some of the most violent cities in the country are led by strong mayors, and that strong mayor forms of government are more susceptible to corruption.
There are ways to effectively fight crime, but the city does not have to change its form of government to do so, said Mildred McDuffie, a former magistrate judge.
“This is not to say that every strong mayor city has a high crime rate, but it is to say that it is ridiculous to assert that having a strong mayor is a cure for crime,” McDuffie said. “We realize that corruption and crime can occur in any government, but the facts are clear that it is much more prevalent when you install a political boss.”
The group held its press conference on the front steps of The State Media Co.’s complex on Shop Road, where members also expressed disgust over the paper’s strong editorial support of a strong mayor form of government.
The State is just outside the city limits, said Kit Smith, a leader of the opposition. She also criticized the top management and editorial staff members who support strong mayor for not living in the city.
“If you want to tell the city how it needs to be run, you ought to live here,” Smith said.
The opponents also took aim at Mayor Steve Benjamin for using tragedy to support his case to change forms of government.
Earlier this month, Benjamin used Sheriff Leon Lott’s operation in Five Points as an example of why city government needs to change. Lott said he conducted the operation without notifying interim Columbia Police Chief Ruben Santiago because Santiago would have had to get permission from too many bosses and word would have leaked.
Santiago’s boss, city manager Teresa Wilson, has said the interim chief had the authority to make his own decisions. Benjamin said it was a prime example of micromanaging that would be eliminated if strong mayor is approved.
As for the case that cities with strong mayor forms of government are more violent, the group presented statistics compiled through Wikipedia, which cited an FBI crime report, and a website called InfoPlease.com. They admitted their research was not scientific but pointed out they are a volunteer, grass-roots group doing the best they can to make their case.
“We’re not the Quinn PR firm,” Smith said, in reference to Richard Quinn & Associates, a professional political consulting firm that is being paid to drum up support for a strong mayor form of government.
Later, at a forum at Greenview Park, only 11 people came out on a chilly, wet afternoon to hear a presentation from Scott Slatton of the S.C. Municipal Association. Most of those there were advocates for one position or the other. Few were average voters living in the largely African-American neighborhood known for its high voter turnout.
Benjamin attended the meeting with Larry Sypolt, a former mayoral candidate who now leads a public safety committee. City manager Teresa Wilson’s father also attended. His daughter’s position would be dissolved if the form of government changes, and it is unknown whether the mayor would find another City Hall job for her.