STRONG MAYOR COMPARISON: Greenville’s successful system didn’t need ‘strong mayor’

cleblanc@thestate.comDecember 1, 2013 


    Form of government: Council-manager

    Mayor’s tenure: 18 years

    Number on council: 7

    Majority needed to pass initiatives: 4

    Population: 60,709


Prosperity has come to Greenville under its strong-manager form of government, but it took steps and missteps – small and large – to get there, its mayor said.

“I’ve experienced a dysfunctional council. I’ve experienced a dysfunctional manager,” Mayor Knox White said of his 17-year tenure. “None of the systems is perfect. It’s going to come down to the personalities and the willingness to work together. The personalities matter a lot.”

The Upstate’s economic hub has operated with a professional city manager and a 4-2-1 election system for its City Council since the mid-1970s.

“We have our dust-ups once in a while, but ... there’s not a lot of ‘us against them,’” White said. “It took a few election cycles, but for the past 10 years we’ve pretty much been on the same sheet of music.”

That system of government has brought Greenville, a city with about half of Columbia’s population and a per-capita income of $27,616, a downtown with:

•  Nearly 100 restaurants, 20 percent of which opened in 2010 and 2011

•  Almost 100 retail operations, one-quarter of which opened during the same two years

•  About 850 hotel rooms – and more on the way

More than 1,700 condos or apartments

•  Two indoor concert venues

•  A popular minor-league baseball stadium that is a replica of Fenway Park

•  “Best of” designations, from AARP Magazine’s best places in the nation to retire, Forbes magazine’s list of Top 10 transformed neighborhoods in the country and Men’s Journal’s choice of Top 18 Coolest Towns in America.

White said a strong-mayor system would have had little impact on Greenville’s success.

“It’s faster on a lot of the smaller things,” he said of an elected chief executive. “On the big things, no – because you still have to persuade council.”

But a strong mayor who works full time for the city could devote more time to recruiting business. “That’s probably the biggest advantage,” White said.


The backdrop of Greenville’s growth and changing personality is the multi-billion-dollar investment from nearby industrial giants, especially carmaker BMW and Michelin, a tire manufacturer.

The jobs they generate have fueled the city’s economy and helped turn Greenville cosmopolitan.

“You can’t walk in downtown Greenville without hearing foreign languages,” White, an attorney, said. “The city’s clean and it’s safe. It’s not like most American cities. That’s a story and phrase I hear a lot.”

Part of the reason a manager form of government works well there is that City Hall and voters expect the mayor to be the city’s leader, and council respects the manager’s legal authority.

“The tradition is that the mayor leads ... it absolutely pervades the electorate,” White said. “Maybe you need a strong mayor in a community that has fragmentation.”

Greenville council members – the majority of whom are women – abide by the state law’s requirement that council work through the manager and avoid meddling, said White and council’s longest-serving member, Lillian Brock Flemming.

“We made a concerted effort that if we wanted something done, we go though the city manager,” Flemming said, adding it wasn’t always that way. “If I contact a department head, I copy the city manager,” she said of workplace emails or memos.

There were times during her 32 years that some members of council received information others did not, she said. “You found out about things in the newspaper.”

One city manager wanted to meet with three council members at a time to avoid a quorum that would, by law, trigger a formal council meeting, said Fleming, an African-American who is a recruiter for the Greenville County school system.


White said he supports a strong mayor system though he’s never proposed a referendum like Tuesday’s, which was forced on Columbia City Council by a determined group of business and political leaders through petitions signed by voters.

White chuckled at the accountability of government in Charleston, where strong Mayor Joe Riley has run day-to-day operations for 10 terms.

“If he sees trash on the street, he calls the department head and gets it done,” White said. “I have to write a memo.”

But in Greenville, City Manager John Castile’s focus on daily challenges in running the government gives White the freedom to focus on big-picture issues, especially business recruitment.

“When the system works well, it’s liberating to the elected officials,” he said.

“John gets to deal with the messy things – HR (personnel) things, the latest crisis in the police department,” White said. “I tell him, ‘Good luck. Go be the manager.’”

White gushes over Castile, a Columbia native who went to college in the Upstate and worked his way up in Greenville government.

“I marvel at John Castile,” the mayor said. “He is amazing, and he can complete my sentences. He’s a modest individual. You don’t see him on TV a lot. He kind of leads from behind. A manager is different from being a leader.”

Efforts to interview Castile, who is African-American, were unsuccessful.

Castile oversees a $131.6 million annual budget, but, unlike in Columbia, he does not administer Greenville’s water system. That is done in the Upstate by an elected commission.


White said the success of downtown development in Greenville has bought council an added measure of public trust.

“People give us a strong benefit of the doubt about our next project,” he said.

Those include a $100 million, nine-story complex of offices, retail space and a home for a Clemson University master’s program started earlier this year. Still to come is a flurry of apartments at separate city center sites, including 55 luxury units one block from Main Street and 100 near Fluor Field, where the city’s minor league baseball team plays.

Flemming said she is concerned about the number of African-Americans who have moved out of the city, some displaced by the construction of new or expanded thoroughfares.

“I feel the larger (African-American) population is being served, but they’re not being served the best they can.”

The city is working on affordable housing developments, said Flemming, who was re-elected this year in a district with a voting-age population that she said is 52 percent African-American.

But having a professional manager works for Greenville, Flemming said.

“It’s serving our city well. It is the only form that we’ve ever known. It has a lot to do with our respect for our city manager.”

Howard Duvall, one of the leaders of the “no” faction in Columbia opposed to a strong mayor system, spent a career at the Municipal Association of South Carolina seeking to train city leaders about governing.

Duvall said he has been talking to City Council members about abiding by the limitations state law puts on dealing with department heads and other city employees. A council majority – Sam Davis, Tameika Isaac Devine, Moe Baddourah and Leona Plaugh – are among the opponents of a strong-mayor system.

“I think they’ve heard enough (complaints of meddling) in the past several months ... to understand they have some responsibility to see that they implement the law correctly,” Duvall said.


Form of government: Council-manager

Mayor’s tenure: 18 years

Number on council: 7

Majority needed to pass initiatives: 4

Population: 60,709

Annual budget: $131,658,846 (2013-14)

Reach LeBlanc at (803) 771-8664.

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