Archive editorial: Latest city mess shows need for new form of government

November 28, 2013 

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TRACY GLANTZ — tglantz@thestate.com Buy Photo

Published Dec. 22, 2002

IT’S HARD TO KNOW whom to blame for the aborted move to stifle dissent on the Columbia City Council. Was it City Manager Leona Plaugh, who would have been shielded from criticism under the proposal? Or was it council members, some of whom claimed “credit” for the idea?

We can’t tell. The mayor insists it was Ms. Plaugh; she and some council members say not.

But we do know two things:

The whole idea was outrageous. The essence of representative democracy is a free and open exchange of views. Provisions in the 40-page proposed policy would have required council members to keep quiet if they didn’t like the way a vote went. That might work in the private sector, but in the public forum it flies directly in the face of what America is about. Elected officials who backed this should hang their heads. And if it did come from Ms. Plaugh, it amounted to nothing less than an attempted coup d’etat. Just to clear up any possible confusion, Ms. Plaugh works for the mayor and council (who work for the voters), not the other way around.

Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, the fact that we couldn’t tell whom to blame for this fiasco points to the central problem with the council/city manager form of government, which is that you can’t tell who is in charge. No one is accountable.

Mayor Bob Coble said the proposal to muzzle the council would have amounted to a “de facto change in city government,” giving the city manager more authority and reducing the council’s control.

Incredibly, some council members, such as Anne Sinclair and E.W. Cromartie, backed the effort.

If council members want to improve the way they relate to one another and the public, they can simply decide to get along, without a surreal code of silence. And even if she wasn’t the instigator, Ms. Plaugh had no business getting involved in the political issue of how elected officials relate to each other.

Whomever was to blame, it is clear that there is something rotten in Columbia’s governmental structure. It’s time for a change.

Even before Ms. Plaugh, it was clear that the council-manager form had outlived its usefulness. There was a serious disconnect between the broad visions of part-time elected officials and the actual day-to-day administration of the city by unelected managers.

We had hoped that would change under Ms. Plaugh — a long-time, dedicated city employee. But she appears to be in over her head.

In August, she rolled out a large-scale reorganization of city government without full input from the council. That blew up in her face. Although the council reviewed the plan and made needed changes, the ordeal shook employee morale and caused confusion that lingers yet.

Now, a push to review Ms. Plaugh’s status — which could have ended in her being fired — may turn into a vote of confidence for her as early as Monday. Things just get more confusing, but one bit of clarity emerges: Whether Ms. Plaugh stays or goes for now, she should probably be Columbia’s last city manager.

Early in 2003, city leaders should begin discussions about electing a full-time mayor. The ultimate problem is not Ms. Plaugh; it’s the system. We can no longer leave this city in the hands of an unaccountable, unknown, unelected manager.

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