Charleston Mayor Joe Riley is the embodiment of a strong mayor: All major changes in the port city have to go through him.
His 10 terms in office have brought Riley and the city heaps of accolades:
• Revitalization of the historic downtown business district
• Growth of the city in size and population
• Development of affordable housing
• Increased commitment to racial harmony, an issue that prompted him to run in 1975
• Mantels full of awards for the city’s livability and for the 70-year-old mayor himself.
“I don’t like the term,” Riley said of a “strong mayor” job description. “A better term is a chief executive mayor. I consider my City Council my board of directors.”
Riley has weighed in heavily on Columbia’s strong-mayor referendum that is to go before voters Tuesday.
He wrote a guest column that appeared in The State newspaper Nov. 17 in support of the capital city’s conversion from the city manager system it has had 64 years. Riley also gave the newspaper an hour-long interview about the strong-mayor system in Charleston, which is “long overdue” in Columbia, he said.
Larry Shirley represented Charleston City Council’s District 10 for 20 years. Shirley said he learned firsthand that strong mayor is an apt description.
“They’ve got the power, and you don’t,” Shirley said of Charleston’s system. “And you’ve got to acquiesce and get with the (mayor’s) program.”
Shirley, a Republican, acknowledges that he had a rocky relationship with Democrat Riley, especially during Shirley’s early years on council. He once accused Riley of having a Napoleonic complex.
But that relationship improved, and Shirley now says his and the city’s “dissatisfaction with Mayor Riley is as low as it’s ever been.”
One of the objections among opponents in Columbia is that a strong mayor would relegate others on council to roles as surrogates of an empowered chief executive.
“The role of City Council is not diminished by the strong-mayor system,” he said. “It seems like it’s some shifting of power, but I think City Council has a chance to be more effective in a strong-mayor system. The council member goes to the mayor ... who is their colleague. The mayor is interested in trying to successfully solve a problem the council member has.”
In his guest column, Riley wrote, “The mayor ... needs the support of City Council. No initiatives the mayor is interested in can pass City Council without a majority vote.”
That’s not how Shirley recalls it.
“He pretty much does what he wants to,” said the former representative of the city’s suburban area known as the “plantation district” from 1990 through 2010. “The mayor loves his power, and trust me, I’ve been on both sides of that with him.
“If I wanted it, it didn’t happen,” Shirley said, citing an example of his support for demolishing the Gaillard Auditorium several years ago. “If the mayor wanted it, it happened.”
The aging concert hall in the peninsula’s Ansonborough neighborhood has been razed and is being replaced by a $142 million home for the Spoleto Festival and performances of the Charleston Symphony and others.
Pressed about the unequal nature of the relationship between mayor and the 12 single-member council representatives, Riley said, “In the execution of government, then the mayor does (have more power than council), and that’s great because the citizens know who to hold responsible. It’s a less complicated situation.”
Charleston mayor pro tem William Dudley Gregorie said Riley is no dictator. “I think our mayor is extremely influential. But he doesn’t win all issues.” But Gregorie, an African-American just elected to a second full term in majority-white District 6, could not recall a major issue that went against Riley.
Still, Gregorie said Charleston’s successes occur because Riley leads and works well with council members.
“There is a misconception about the strong-mayor form of government,” Gregorie said. “The misconception is that all power lies with the mayor. But it takes seven members to pass anything.”
Riley said he and Mayor Steve Benjamin have discussed a shift at Columbia City Hall. “I’m not strategizing with him or anything like that,” Riley said, although he said he is a Benjamin admirer.
They agree on the issue of accountability.
“There is no buck-passing” with a strong mayor, Riley said. “The mayor is always going to have so much more information about how the citizens feel, what their concerns are. It’s clarity for the voters ... who to blame and who to thank.”
Shirley said he had to adjust to his lesser role that required him winning the mayor’s support. “After 20 years, I had to mellow.”
He hadn’t quite mellowed in 2006 when he got national attention for a remark about parents who don’t control their children.
“These mothers need to be spayed if they can’t take care of theirs,” Shirley said after seeing a video of a store robbery believed to have been carried out by a 14-year-old and a 12-year-old who were charged with armed robbery. Police decided not to charge a 9-year-old.
A BIG CRITICISM
Riley has been criticized in the Charleston Chronicle, which covers the city’s African-American community.
The paper has written more than once about the city’s shrinking black population during Riley’s leadership.
The falloff has been most notable among the largely African-American neighborhoods known as The Peninsula. Older residents continue to age or die, and many have moved to North Charleston, which also has a strong-mayor government.
The 2010 Census showed an 8.4 percentage point drop in black residents to 25.6 percent of Charleston’s population. Conversely, the white population, largely through annexation, grew by 5.6 percentage points during the same decade. White residents constitute 68.6 percent of the total. Overall, the city’s population jumped by 24 percent to 120,083.
Despite displacement of many black residents from downtown, Gregorie says it’s because of economic forces, not by design.
Per capita income also rose. It increased by $8,349 between 2000 and 2010, Census data show.
“I do think African-Americans are being served,” he said. “Our city is in an era of amazing possibilities, and those possibilities extend to African-Americans as well as the general population.”
Charleston routinely makes lists of the best cities in the United States to live in or visit.
“Having a strong mayor would be great for Columbia,” Riley said. “I hope that it becomes a reality.”
Form of government: Strong mayor
Mayor’s tenure: 38 years
Council members: 13
Majority needed to pass initiatives: 7
Annual budget: $160,045,139 (2013)
Form of government: Council-manager
Mayor’s tenure: 4 years
Number on council: 7
Majority needed to pass initiatives: 4
Annual budget: $124,655,240 (2013-14 general fund); $128,208,385 (2013-14 water and sewer fund)
Reach LeBlanc at (803) 771-8664.