Columbia, SC — “Under this system of five little governments in one, there are five separate employment agencies with five distinct standards of employment, together with five systems of promotions and five distinct pay scales, and may I add one more — five systems of retirement. This, I submit, is not for the best interest of the city.”
— Lester L. Bates
IS IT ANY wonder that Columbians wanted to change the city’s form of government in 1949?
Then-Columbia City Councilman Lester L. Bates’ characterization of the commission structure under which the city operated paints a disturbing picture of a government ripe for inefficiency, waste and, yes, corruption. Five council members essentially divided the functions of government among themselves and ran them as their own fiefdoms.
Mr. Bates, who later would be elected mayor, went on to say that “City Council serves the triple function of lawmaking, judging and administering.” He said there needed to be a separation of powers and that a city manager form of government would be the better option.
The Chamber of Commerce, this newspaper’s editorial board and many others agreed. But those partial to the dysfunction pushed back.
One private citizen, Robert Leonard, declared the city manager system a “dictatorship.” He said he spoke for the “little people” and declared, “We’re going to fight you at the ballot boxes, we’re going to fight you at every place we meet you.”
M.L. Wood, a textile union representative, exclaimed: “Anything the Chamber of Commerce is battling so hard for — I’m a little scared of it.”
Sound familiar? The State’s editorial board, the Columbia chamber and others believe council-manager has outlived its usefulness; the indecisive, anti-accountability structure empowers many but holds no one accountable. Columbia needs an indisputable, accountable elected leader to oversee the executive branch of city government, not an unelected manager who answers to seven elected bosses with seven different agendas on council.
Not surprisingly, some of the same scare tactics that were unleashed in an attempt to block progress in 1949 have been making rounds in this 2013 debate. Strong mayor opponents use the terms “czar” and “dictator” when referring to an empowered mayor. Some question the chamber’s motives and have chastised our editorial board for its position, which it has openly expressed for roughly 15 years.
We even received an email this week from one of the anti-strong-mayor leaders challenging us to come “out of the ivory tower” to duel — I mean debate. There was no debate, but the opponents did hold a press conference at the entrance of The State’s building, blasting our support for strong mayor.
I know and respect many who oppose strong mayor. They have some legitimate concerns, ranging from the fact that it would take power away from City Council members and neighborhoods to the fear of possible cronyism or corruption. But the promise of strong mayor outweighs those concerns.
Frankly, the gloom and doom being predicted isn’t based on any experience we can relate to in Columbia. The best dissenters can do is suggest that Columbia under a mayor-council (or strong mayor) structure would be like trouble-plagued Chicago or Detroit. Some even, comically if you ask me, hearken back to the days of Richard J. Daley and Boss Tweed.
But while strong-mayor opponents stretch their imaginations — and the truth — conjuring up worst-case-scenarios that could materialize under strong mayor, we’ve got decades of real-life failures, false starts and messes that have occurred under council-manager.
When voters signed off on the city manager in 1949, Columbia was roughly the same size and stature as Charlotte, a city that anti-strong-mayor folks hold up as a council-manager success story. But if council-manager is the answer for Columbia, why did the Queen City dart so far ahead — in population, economic development, etc. — over the nearly 65 years that have elapsed? Charlotte is around five times the size of Columbia today. To be fair, a major reason for that is South Carolina’s archaic annexation laws, which prevent municipalities from growing, whereas Charlotte and other N.C. cities have no such barrier. But that doesn’t explain away all of the gap.
And what about Greenville, another city anti-strong-mayor folks hold up as a council-manager success? That city too has had successes that have eluded Columbia.
The fact is that what works in Greenville and Charlotte isn’t necessarily what will work best in Columbia.
Speaking of what works: A commission that studied Columbia’s structure in 2005 concluded that the city’s government was broken; among other things, it was determined that the council meddled in the affairs of the city manager and the police chief. But the panel was stacked against strong mayor; it didn’t recommend a change.
Dysfunction has surfaced throughout city government despite a professional manager being at the helm:
When Columbia chooses its next police chief, that person will become the eighth to head the Police Department since 2007. The department has dealt with an embarrassing certification-test cheating scandal, dueling claims of wrongdoing between the interim chief and a former captain and other dysfunction.
In the finance department, there were years of shoddy bookkeeping, tardy and inaccurate financial statements, general-fund deficits and overall ineptness; millions were spent practically without notice. At one point, the city had hired more employees than it could afford to pay.
At one point, federal environmental agents raided Columbia’s sewer plant because of allegations that included potential illegal dumping. Raided. Some agents were armed and wore bulletproof vests. No criminal charges were filed. But the city has had serious problems with sewer spills that did land it in trouble; Columbia is a chief polluter in our state. So much so that the city has been fined $1.5 million by federal regulators and is compelled to spend what Columbia officials have projected at about $750 million to upgrade the system.
Should I go on?
After having had a minor-league baseball team for 22 years, Columbia lost the Capital City Bombers because there was no empowered leadership pushing to keep the club in town; then-Mayor Bob Coble made attempts, but got little support from the council. (I’m not advocating a publicly financed ballpark.)
CanalSide, which city officials had pledged to develop on the old prison site along the river, sat empty for years because of the city’s inability to close a deal; Columbia eventually sold the site, but taxpayers lost money.
There are some people who still lament that Columbia didn’t get a better deal when SCE&G transferred the bus system into the city’s hands. That matter had dragged on for years, in part because Columbia had no empowered negotiator; ultimately, the city took what it could get.
Columbia deserves more. Voters should empower the mayor to go get it.
Reach Mr. Bolton at (803) 771-8631 or firstname.lastname@example.org.