Local leaders, including governor, weigh in last minute on Columbia’s strong-mayor referendum

From Staff ReportsNovember 30, 2013 

Just days before Columbia voters head to the polls to decide how their city should be run, the state’s highest elected official and several powerhouse former city councilwomen are weighing in.

Gov. Nikki Haley has come out in support of Columbia’s strong-mayor referendum, which will be decided on Tuesday.

Meanwhile, former longtime city District 3 representative Anne Sinclair and former councilwoman Belinda Gergel, who also once represented District 3, weighed in — on opposite ends of the debate.

Sinclair announced Saturday that she is voting “no” on Tuesday and encouraged other Columbians to do the same.

The popular Sinclair served on City Council for 20 years, from 1988 to 2008, representing District 3’s neighborhoods, off Rosewood Drive and surrounding Devine Street and the University of South Carolina.

“Through my work on the board of the National League of Cities, I truly believe the council-manager system is the best form of government,” Sinclair said in a news release. “Having a professionally qualified manager gives Columbia residents accountability in their city government every single day.”

Sinclair said that while she had initially decided not to involve herself publicly in the referendum campaign, the lineup of endorsements from people outside the city compelled her to share her perspective publicly.

“None of the problems by the side calling for a strong mayor require a change in government. It just takes a commitment of putting public service before politics,” she said. “I would urge all residents of our city to get out on Tuesday and vote NO.”

On Friday, Sinclair’s successor in District 3, Belinda Gergel, joined the debate — on the other side.

Gergel, a former professor at Columbia College who served from 2008-10, now lives in Charleston. She said the decision-making process under the current form of government has been “shrouded in confusion and finger-pointing.”

“While I have great respect for the individuals who have stepped forward to serve on council in the past and the fine folks who work on our city staff, I can tell you from my personal experience that the present form of government, however well it may work in other cities, fundamentally blurs the lines of accountability at Columbia’s City Hall,” Gergel wrote in a statement.

She urged voters to vote “yes” on Tuesday.

Haley also wants voters to say “yes.”

A mailer explaining Haley’s position was sent to some city residents late last week.

“After talking to Mayor (Steve) Benjamin, Governor Haley was happy to lend her support,” said Rob Godfrey, a spokesman for Haley, in a statement. “The governor has long believed in restructuring government to produce accountability and efficiency for the people it serves — not just in state government, but at every level of government.”

Adam Fogle, strategic advisor to the Columbia Citizens for Better Government, said Benjamin and Haley spoke at a recent economic development announcement. Fogle said Haley’s support adds to the “broad, bipartisan coalition” supporting the referendum. He said that includes former Gov. Jim Hodges, former Attorney General Henry McMaster and others.

“This is exactly the kind of reform Governor Haley has fought for at the state level and a rare opportunity for our city,” Fogle said in a statement.

McMaster said Haley’s endorsement is a huge advantage for supporters of the strong-mayor system. “She is one of the leading voices probably in the country on reform and making things work better,” McMaster said.

Haley does not live in the Columbia city limits. And she has never served in local government. But McMaster said that does not make her less qualified to talk about reforming Columbia’s government.

“A lot of the supporters of each side in this issue have never served in government office; that doesn’t make any difference,” he said. “You don’t need to have served in an office to understand what needs to be done in an office.”

Haley is a Republican and Benjamin, while officially nonpartisan, has not hid his affiliation with the S.C. Democratic Party. But Benjamin is a client of veteran GOP consultant Richard Quinn — whose firm is handling public relations for the campaign to support a strong-mayor system.

“This vote is about the structure of government. We are not electing a candidate,” McMaster said. “The governor and the mayor see it in the same light.”

Staff writers Adam Beam, Cassie Cope and Chris Winston contributed.

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