A divided Columbia City Council pledges to do better job in wake of failed strong-mayor vote

cleblanc@thestate.comDecember 14, 2013 

— The meeting began at 2:17 p.m. in the dog days of August as City Council tackled agendas that were packed with controversial, important issues that would unfold in front of jammed meeting rooms in North Columbia.

By the time the workday ended at 3:30 a.m. Aug. 14, members had repeatedly exchanged cross words. Citizens waiting to address council complained aloud: “Bicker on your own time. This is our time.”

Public policy on homelessness emerged muddled after that 13-hour meeting drew to a close. Strong-mayor forces went into overdrive. Tens of millions in public debt were committed with only a few city staffers and paid advocates in the room.

Council is trying to work toward a new accord after two bruising elections in recent weeks: a citywide election and a strong-mayor referendum. But even now, council’s deep divisions remain as members work with their city manager, who will continue to run the city instead of Mayor Steve Benjamin, since the Dec. 3 referendum failed.

There is no consensus on how to mend themselves. Opposing views of governance remain entrenched. The embattled city manager seeks to navigate her way through the unrest while making big decisions – including hiring a police chief . Voters said on Dec. 3 that they don’t want Mayor Steve Benjamin, instead of a city manager, to run the city.

“We don’t know each other all that well,” said Councilwoman Tameika Isaac Devine, council’s second-most senior member. “And so we don’t work cohesively that well.”

Devine and others on council know the public is not satisfied with council’s performance.

“I’ll admit – I think Leona and Moe and Sam would admit this, too – we’ve got work to do on council,” an excited Devine declared Dec. 3 to a happy throng of “Vote No’’ supporters after the strong-mayor push lost by 14 percentage points.

“We know by the mere fact that we had this discussion, that we need to check ourselves,” Devine said. “And we will do that.” She was referring to council members Leona Plaugh, Moe Baddourah and Sam Davis, who comprise council’s majority and who all opposed a strong-mayor system.

Plaugh, in an interview, said she expects council will have to answer to a more vigilant public.

“There are people who paid attention before but will pay more attention to make sure that we all will do a better job,” Plaugh said.

Team building

Offers of assistance toward reconciliation are coming from the Municipal Association of South Carolina, from former partisans in the form-of-government battle and from individual members of council.

But each council member seems to be working on his or her own plan for how to help everyone get along.

Benjamin, the face of the “Vote Yes” campaign, is working with Fort Jackson to put together a curriculum and exercises specifically designed for council.

Details are being worked out, but Benjamin is confident the experience would help council operate more effectively and efficiently, mayoral aide Michael Wukela said.

Benjamin was unavailable late last week because of the death and funeral of his brother-in-law.

One of his closest allies on council, Cameron Runyan, said Friday he did not know that Benjamin was working on that initiative.

Devine, meanwhile, wants former, veteran councilwoman Anne Sinclair, an experienced facilitator who owns a consulting firm, to lead self-improvement efforts. Devine first suggested that to council after the Aug. 13 meeting, which Devine called the worst she has attended in her nearly 12 years on council.

Runyan said he prefers using a facilitator who is independent of council.

Sinclair “might be a little too close to the personalities,” he said. Sinclair is known to be a strong ally of Devine, and Sinclair publicly opposed the strong-mayor referendum.

Miriam Hair, director of the organization that trains leaders in the state’s 270 municipalities, said she has reached out to several council members. Hair is asking how the association might help.

Benjamin doesn’t see a need for a refresher on how the council-manager form of government is supposed to work, Wukela said.

This council does not have a strong record of participating in Municipal Association training programs.

Devine is the only one of the seven members to have completed its training program, according to association records.

Baddourah is close to finishing the five-class curriculum. Davis finished one class in May 1998 and another in March 2008. Benjamin and Plaugh took the introductory class in May 2010, when they were first elected.

Runyan and Councilman Brian DeQuincey Newman have yet to enroll in a class after serving on council for 1½ years and 3½ years, respectively, records show.

Personalities and philosophies

Devine and Runyan, two of council’s three citywide representatives (the mayor is the other), acknowledge they don’t see eye to eye.

“Cameron and I don’t click,” Devine said. “I feel I have reached out to him ... to try for us to work better together.”

She, Runyan and the rest of council – including her longtime friend Benjamin – must learn to disagree respectfully and then find solutions that serve the city best, Devine said.

She and Runyan clashed publicly during the homelessness debate. Devine repeatedly said Runyan was devising a “secret” plan that excluded certain neighborhood leaders and some members of council, including her. Yet a competing plan compiled by homelessness providers was kept from public scrutiny for months until it was released at the Aug. 13 meeting. Devine did not criticize that effort as “secret.”

“I would say I feel the same way about her,” Runyan said, countering that he has called and emailed Devine without ready responses from her.

“To say that I haven’t responded (to Devine’s overtures) is just not true,” he said. “It’s just not.”

Runyan said their differences come down to opposing views about sweeping issues.

“We have vastly different opinions of how government should work – vastly,” he said. “The rub is that leadership is not defined by doing what every activist group desires. The right decision is not how many people can I make happy. The right decision is what’s right for the city. That, invariably, requires sacrifice.”

Asked what she will begin doing differently, Devine said, “I commit to making sure that if I have a disagreement, that I would like to understand the other side better.”

Plaugh, who spent 14 years working at City Hall, then ran for council after she was fired as city manager, sais she wants committees to be focused on key, long-term issues and council to hold more roundtable discussions so that consensus can emerge.

Managing the manager

City manager Teresa Wilson’s one-year tenure has been rocky from the outset.

And since she runs the day-to-day business of the city, she is pivotal to council’s discussions.

The former city lobbyist and short-term assistant city manager won the job from a split council as Plaugh and Baddourah argued she wasn’t ready for the job. Baddourah, during his campaign to unseat Benjamin, called her selection cronyism on Benjamin’s part.

Howard Duvall, the retired director of the state municipal association and a leader in the “Vote No” crowd, argued on a WIS-TV debate that Columbia needs professional management.

“The problem with the city of Columbia is we’ve not had a professional manager in 40 years,” Duvall said. “We’ve had a utility director. We’ve had a community development director. We’ve had a junior lobbyist. But we’ve not hired at the city of Columbia a professional that has proven himself or herself over the years.”

Wilson found herself thrust quickly into controversy with the sudden disappearance from public view in April of then-police chief Randy Scott – arguably the city’s most high-profile and important post.

During the first half of the year, Wilson, Benjamin and council as a body seemed largely in sync.

That changed in July, when Benjamin publicly criticized Wilson for going to the scene of a police call involving civil rights leader Lonnie Randolph.

Benjamin said her decision left the impression of favorable treatment and called for a city policy banning politicians and city staffers from crime scenes unless they are in law enforcement. It failed.

And Wilson’s relationship with Benjamin changed noticeably.

A few months later, Benjamin and Runyan challenged Wilson and an senior assistant city manager on plans to restructure the leadership of the police department. The council members accused them of not allowing the chief to run his department. It was a theme Benjamin would hammer during the strong-mayor campaign.

The tension between the two has been apparent.

Last week, Benjamin for the second time raised the prospect of using a search firm on the day before Wilson’s deadline for applications for police chief.

Wilson resisted the mayor’s suggestion.

“I’ve heard you say ‘national search’ and I know what a national search means,” she said. “What are you trying to accomplish? Do you want a national search or a national search firm?”

Wilson had the backing of several council members, and Benjamin relented.

Duvall said he has been working with Wilson and has offered to take her to Greenville and Rock Hill to learn from city managers who Duvall said work well in the council-manager form of government. The trips have yet to be arranged.

Wilson declined to be interviewed for this article. But she issued a prepared statement.

“Over the past year, I have dedicated myself to ensuring that Columbia is fiscally sound, organizationally efficient and well-positioned to meet the needs and exceed the expectations of our customers,” Wilson wrote.

“My management team and I will continue to work diligently with the mayor and City Council, as well as business and community stakeholders, to collaboratively build upon the city’s strengths and collectively address its challenges.”

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