Fresh off a major defeat at the referendum ballot box, Mayor Steve Benjamin said he might soften his approach to City Council but not his aggressive agenda for his second term.
“I will exhibit the characteristic of patience that my parents instilled in me,” Benjamin said in his mayoral office Wednesday, the day after city residents, in a lopsided vote, rejected making him Columbia’s first chief executive even though they re-elected him overwhelmingly last month. “I will make every effort to be as warm and fuzzy as council wants me to be.
“But I will continue to push for positive change for the people of Columbia,” he said. Then Benjamin added with a laugh, “But I won’t accept ‘no’ for an answer. We’re not going to stop. Whether council decides to join me on that journey remains to be seen. I hope they will.”
Benjamin said he will move ahead to install the expensive roads, street lighting, water and sewer systems and parking garages that will become the foundations of the huge Bull Street neighborhood.
As his second four-year term begins Jan. 1, he plans to push to:
• Secure raises for police and firefighters as well as hire more police officers.
• Remove layers of bureaucracy between the police chief and the city manager.
• Expand ties between the police department and the Richland County Sheriff’s Department.
• Create the job of inspector general to root out waste and fraud in city government.
• Revisit his defeated proposal to ban City Council members from crime scenes.
• Revisit his plan for a municipal ethics commission, which council rejected even though it expanded city ethics policies.
Benjamin outlined those proposals during a news conference on the eve of the strong-mayor referendum – the day after he turned 44 – as the first things he would seek to do under Columbia’s strong-mayor system. He repeated that agenda after the votes were in.
Benjamin said his resolve to be a “change agent” in Columbia has not been shaken. He said he believes it’s part of God’s plan for him and knew the role would be difficult.
“If there is no struggle, there is no progress,” Benjamin said, quoting Frederick Douglass’ 1857 Address on West India Emancipation. “Those who profess to favor freedom and yet deprecate agitation, are men who want crops without plowing up the ground, they want rain without thunder and lightning. ... Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and never will.”
Benjamin said he will not change his mind that a strong-mayor system is best for Columbia. He said he would support another referendum in four years.
“If in fact the people of Columbia stand up and say they want another shot, I would support that. But it’s not at the top of my agenda.”
He noted that he was re-elected by a 30 percentage point margin. “The people of Columbia strongly support our vision,” Benjamin said.
The four council members who opposed a strong-mayor system say they are eager to return to work with Benjamin so that City Hall runs more smoothly. Those interviewed would not say the vote weakened him politically.
“To make this form (of government) work,” said Councilwoman Tameika Isaac Devine, “we have to have a leader – and that leader is Steve Benjamin.” Devine, a longtime friend of Benjamin and his wife, was among the leaders of the “Vote No” campaign.
Though Devine and Benjamin clashed publicly on ending Columbia’s strong-manager form, Devine said she argued during the campaign that voters should separate Benjamin as mayor from the question on the ballot.
She pushed back against Benjamin critics who called the referendum a power grab.
“I can’t ignore people that think that. But I still feel like it was just one issue (form of government, not power),” Devine said. “It might not be a power grab by him, but another mayor might be enticed by the power.”
Councilwoman Leona Plaugh, another key organizer in the “No” campaign, said the referendum allows for a clean break with council’s contentious past.
“I think this creates an opportunity for all of us to put things behind us,” Plaugh said. “One of the things we have not done well ... is sat around the table and talked about the issues that are important.”
Asked if Benjamin has been hobbled by “strong mayor’s” 14-percentage-point rejection by voters, Plaugh said, “I must honestly say, I don’t know.”
One of the biggest supporters of a strong-mayor system has long been the Greater Columbia Chamber of Commerce. The group argued a strong mayor would be able to directly recruit more businesses and jobs.
Lee Bussell, a senior leader at the chamber, said while there are no specific plans for working without a strong mayor, a strong mayor was never the ultimate goal. The ultimate goal was to have a more effective and accountable city government.