Richland sheriff won’t take a side in strong mayor debate

nophillips@thestate.comNovember 27, 2013 

Richland County Sheriff Leon Lott

FILE PHOTOGRAPH/THE STATE

— Richland County Sheriff Leon Lott will not take a position on Tuesday’s strong mayor referendum.

“It’s a decision city residents have to make, and I’m not a city resident,” Lott said.

Lott’s decision to step out of the political debate over whether Columbia should change its form of government hasn’t stopped his name from being used.

A television ad will begin airing Thanksgiving that features Mayor Steve Benjamin urging voters to approve the referendum to improve accountability.

In the ad, Benjamin says public safety is one reason voters should vote “yes.”

“Sheriff Leon Lott told us our police chief has too many bosses to fight crime effectively,” Benjamin says as a video from a Lott press conference plays in the background.

The mayor is referring to a November news conference where Lott revealed that his deputies had conducted an operation in Five Points but had not told interim Columbia Police Chief Ruben Santiago about it. Lott said Santiago would have had to get permission from too many people at City Hall and word would have leaked.

Benjamin immediately seized on Lott’s words to help make his case for the strong mayor form of government.

If voters choose the strong mayor system, Benjamin would become the city’s chief administrator, overseeing the budget and hiring and firing employees. The city manager’s position would be dissolved. The mayor also would continue having a vote on City Council, and Council would approve the city’s budget and all major policy decisions.

Currently, the city operates under a city manager form of government, meaning council sets the budget and policy and the city manager carries out those decisions.

Residents vote Tuesday on the referendum. If approved, it is unclear when the system would change.

Reach Phillips at (803) 771-8307.

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