Bolton: Strong mayor’s defeat shouldn’t mean business as usual for Columbia

Associate EditorDecember 8, 2013 

Warren Bolton

TIM DOMINICK/TDOMINICK@THESTATE.

— Although Columbians strongly rejected empowering the mayor to run the city’s day-to-day operations, the months spent exploring the possibility could prove invaluable to the governance, growth and development of our capital city.

This was no hollow exercise. While this matter had been talked about off and on since at least 1997, the past few months marked the first time residents and leaders seriously explored how Columbia’s government structure relates to the management and operation of the city with the express intent of deciding whether to make a change.

This city has some great opportunities and great challenges before it, and voters were being asked to determine what form of government should be relied on as Columbia seeks to reach its potential. I had hoped voters would choose change — a strong elected executive is needed to make city government more efficient and accountable — but they decided to stick with the status quo.

But while the form of government won’t change, Columbia’s leaders shouldn’t interpret the vote to mean they can continue business as usual.

The fact is that the shortcomings of council-manager remain — it’s a slow, plodding, anti-accountability structure that empowers many but places no one in charge — and the struggles the city has had in making decisions, being accountable and displaying leadership haven’t gone away. But Columbia can operate better than it has if its leaders, City Council in particular, improves the job they do.

Over the past few months, media reports, forums and debates schooled voters on how council-manager should work. Armed with that knowledge, they must hold the council accountable for how it conducts city business.

While it’s the city manager’s job to oversee operations, including hiring and firing, City Council has often trampled upon the system voters just affirmed. Even some who fought to defeat strong mayor acknowledge that.

Howard Duvall, the former director of the Municipal Association of South Carolina and a leader of the anti-strong mayor contingent, has told council members they must start abiding by the standards state law spells out under council-manager.

It’s bad enough that an unelected, unaccountable city manager is tasked with dodging political land mines while trying to oversee daily operations under the disjointed visions of seven elected bosses on the council. But when the council doesn’t obey the law and stay in its lane this already inefficient, unaccountable form of government becomes even more so.

And report after report has chronicled City Council’s meddling ways. Studies conducted in 2001, 2005 and 2008 all identify council interference as a problem.

The March 2001 study, based on interviews with dozens of managers in city government, portrayed Columbia’s council-manager form of government as a house run amok. It described an atmosphere where the council set no vision or goals, looked out for individual pet projects, routinely went around the city manager to micro-manage departments and projects, got involved in hiring and sought special favors for acquaintances.

Consider this from the report: “Many managers see micromanaging as a problem for the council, too. They report that council calls the City Manager frequently — so much so, in fact, that some believe the City Manager has time for little other than daily dealings with council. There are other similar issues as well: the council intervenes in hiring decisions; they ask for favors for constituents, such as moving one project ahead of others; they interfere with the ability of the City Manager to make personnel decisions; sometimes they go outside the bid process.”

A strong mayor system would put an end to much of that interference.

Not surprisingly, a majority on City Council didn’t like the notion of giving up power. Sam Davis, Tameika Isaac Devine, Leona Plaugh and Moe Baddourah fought to first deny voters an opportunity to decide the strong mayor issue. When that failed, they actively — and successfully — fought to defeat it at the ballot box.

In fighting so hard against change, they’ve essentially declared that they believe council-manager is the answer to helping Columbia thrive and that, for the moment, they and their fellow council members are the ones to lead the way.

Let’s hope they work as hard for Columbia’s success as they did to preserve the status quo.

Reach Mr. Bolton at (803) 771-8631 or wbolton@thestate.com.

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