Bolton: All is not well in the city of Columbia

Associate EditorMarch 8, 2014 

  • Steps to turn Columbia around

    •   The entire Richland County Board of Elections and Voter Registration as well as the interim elections director must resign. If they don’t do so willingly, local lawmakers should demand it. Those lawmakers should then move expeditiously to appoint new boards to oversee separate elections and voter registration commissions so those boards can hire new directors.

    •   City Manager Teresa Wilson should dismiss interim Police Chief Ruben Santiago. She must then hire a new chief. Ms. Wilson and City Council must agree to allow the law professional to run the department without undue and unlawful influence.

    •   City Council must agree to operate under the council-manager system that voters said they preferred in a December referendum. The means Ms. Wilson gets to run daily operations, including hiring and firing. But she must communicate better with her seven elected bosses. Also, council members must work together in the best interest of citizens.

    City Council must be transparent, reveal details early enough for the public to be fully informed and make the best deal for taxpayers.

    •   Mayor Steve Benjamin, City Council and others must step forward and lead.

— ALL IS NOT well in our capital city. People are angry and have become increasingly distrustful and suspect of their government and those they elected to oversee it.

Hardly a day goes by that I don’t get a call from a Columbia or Richland County resident wondering when we’ll hit rock bottom — or from a Lexington County resident thankful to reside on the opposite side of the river.

There’s a perception that Columbia can’t do anything right. That’s not true; the city is positioned for a lot of good things to happen on the economic development, social and cultural fronts. Still there’s truth to that prevailing negative feeling in the air — and it’s not just perception. What people are experiencing is real: Their government and its leaders are failing them.

What else do you call it when elections are botched and not everyone’s vote is counted or when the reason the city can’t get and keep a quality police chief is as much a meddlesome City Council as it is the caliber of candidates for the job?

Despite a resurging downtown, continued development along the riverfront and the promise of a mega-project planned along Bull Street and USC’s research campus, some of the basic underpinnings of local government and even democracy are disintegrating.

Columbians aren’t getting government for the people right now. What they’re experiencing is government over the people, as a rogue elections board flexes its muscles in self-serving ways, City Council rams big projects through with little regard for citizens’ concerns or questions, a once-prized police department founders amid rumors, allegations and a leadership void, and division dwells among elected and appointed leaders.

We need a reset. But are there any among the elected or appointed leaders — from City Council to the city manager to local legislators to the board of elections — able to step into the gap? Any who are able to reassure citizens they are for them and not against them? Able to help residents make sense of this dysfunction? Able to hit the reset button and bring leaders and citizens to the table to start anew?

Elections mess

The arrogance and ineptitude displayed by the Richland County Board of Elections and Voter Registration alone are enough to smother the democratic flames of any community.

Many already had no confidence in this board’s ability to oversee elections after the Nov. 6, 2012, election debacle in which people waited for up to seven hours to vote or didn’t vote at all. And that was before we learned that more than 1,000 absentee ballots weren’t counted in this past November’s election.

Recently, the board fired Howard Jackson, the elections director it chose following a flawed hiring process eight months ago. It hired one of its own members, Samuel Selph, as interim director, making him the third in a year and a half. Mr. Jackson alleges that board members unlawfully meddled in personnel matters, showed little desire to ensure accurate, reliable elections and made their mission to please local lawmakers who appointed them. In one troubling example, he said board members told him to do nothing when he reported that hundreds of uncounted absentee votes from the 2012 general election had been discovered.

A judge rightly ruled the law under which this board was formed unconstitutional; it no longer has any legal basis to exist, and it wouldn’t if lawmakers hadn’t mishandled this matter so badly.

Yet it lives, making one bad decision after another, steadily killing voter confidence and trust.

This entire board — and Mr. Selph — must resign. If board members don’t go willingly, local lawmakers should demand it. Those lawmakers should then appoint new boards to oversee separate elections and voter registration offices; and pray that positive change comes.

Police in disarray

There was a time when the Columbia Police Department was the city’s pride and joy. Today, it’s a source of pain and embarrassment.

Any day now, Columbia could get its eighth police chief since 2007. And while sealing the revolving door at the police chief’s office is the top priority, that has taken a back seat as details are reviewed of an investigation into claims that interim Chief Ruben Santiago was involved in a plot to frame an assistant city manager.

Although Mr. Santiago won’t be prosecuted, a solicitor’s assertion that he wasn’t fully cooperative is disturbing. And the department looks even worse in the wake of profanity-laden audio recordings of Mr. Santiago and former police Capt. David Navarro, who accused Mr. Santiago of the “black ops” plot, and a subordinate employee. The recordings capture Mr. Santiago and Mr. Navarro in an in-depth conversation in the presence of Bridget Caffery, a subordinate, about former chief Randy Scott’s personal problems and strategies for Mr. Scott, Mr. Santiago and Mr. Navarro to rise through the ranks of city administration.

The full investigative file paints the picture of an unacceptable culture of distrust, suspicion and rumors within the department.

That puts city Manager Teresa Wilson in the position of not only having to hire a new chief but also dealing with Mr. Santiago, who no longer can be trusted as even temporary chief but who some in the community want to have the job permanently.

Ms. Wilson should remove Mr. Santiago as interim chief, immediately, if not dismiss him from the department altogether. Sadly, the Police Department’s leadership bench is thin, but she must identify someone in the upper ranks who can hold the fort until she hires a new chief; she has narrowed her choice to two candidates. But that’s not enough; once she has made the hire, Ms. Wilson and City Council must allow the law professional to run the department without undue and unlawful influence.

Why the rush?

City Council’s penchant for pushing through large, costly projects with limited time to debate them also has played a significant role in citizens feeling locked out and even suspicious of city government. In July, the council rammed through an agreement with developer Bob Hughes that committed tens of millions of dollars in public funding for infrastructure at his proposed Bull Street project.

Although the mayor and others said there was a need to rush, nearly a year later we still don’t know the reason. Even as citizens fume over the way that was handled, the council — led by the mayor — is again swatting away public concerns as it considers pouring public money into a $35 million minor league ballpark to anchor the private Bull Street development. True to form, city leaders released a contract with a minor league owner just days before the council gave it the first of two required positive votes.

While Columbia has a history of not taking chances and deliberating issues far too long, those who are understandably anxious about making progress have swung the pendulum too far in the other direction. Yes, leadership means making decisions, but it also means making sure you don’t leave your constituency behind. The mayor and City Council must understand how they do things is as important as what they do. They must take ample time to share details, hear from citizens and have an open debate rather than rushing a vote.

Divided leadership

An air of distrust among council members as well as a power struggle between Ms. Wilson and some on the council, particularly over the police chief search, threatens the cohesiveness of this governing body, which means we have a divided city.

During the November council elections, incumbents running for re-election described the environment on the council as one in which power struggles, bullying, threats and secrecy are common. Members Leona Plaugh and Moe Baddourah spoke of key issues such as the Bull Street agreement being rammed through without giving the full council or the public enough information to gain a real understanding.

Councilwoman Tameika Isaac when asked what needs to happen to improve the city’s relationship with Richland County and other area governments, said “I think we need to focus on our own relations first.”

But things won’t get better as long as Ms. Plaugh and Mr. Baddourah automatically oppose anything Mayor Benjamin supports and Mr. Benjamin bristles at legitimate requests to slow down so the public can understand where he wants to go. Or as long as council members and the city manager fail to communicate on key issues such as the police chief search; they were never on the same page on the search, as evidenced by Councilman Cameron Runyan’s call for the process to be scrapped and started over even after finalists had been named.

Meanwhile, an ongoing rift between Mr. Runyan and Ms. Devine, a real estate attorney, widened recently when it was divulged that the councilwoman may have mishandled closing documents on a city loan to a local business a decade ago.

Ms. Devine acknowledged the mistake but questioned the way the dispute is being handled. She accused Mr. Runyan of playing politics with the issue, saying the issue is “being used as a political means to embarrass me and my law firm.” Mr. Runyan said with taxpayers possibly out of $157,000, he had a duty to bring the issue to council once he learned of it.

First and foremost, City Council must honor the council-manager system that voters affirmed by rejecting a change to strong-mayor in December. That means the city manager runs day-to-day operations, including hiring a police chief. This inefficient, anti-accountability government in which the city manager has seven elected bosses breeds controversy, and that makes it all the more important that council members agree to work with one another in the best interest of citizens, even if they don’t get along.

As a Columbia native and a journalist who has observed Midlands local governments for most of the past three decades, I don’t know that I’ve ever seen public confidence so low.

Something must be done to reverse the tide and reassure citizens.

While no one person can do this alone, Columbia Mayor Steve Benjamin must lead the way. City Council must mend itself and lead for the greater good. County legislators must repair the election mess they created. Others also must take part.

People living in Richland County — doubly so for those in the city limits as well — are right to be frustrated. Their government is failing them, not just structurally, but in practice.

Who among the city’s leadership can or will calm the waters?

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

Steps to turn Columbia around

The entire Richland County Board of Elections and Voter Registration as well as the interim elections director must resign. If they don’t do so willingly, local lawmakers should demand it. Those lawmakers should then move expeditiously to appoint new boards to oversee separate elections and voter registration commissions so those boards can hire new directors.

City Manager Teresa Wilson should dismiss interim Police Chief Ruben Santiago. She must then hire a new chief. Ms. Wilson and City Council must agree to allow the law professional to run the department without undue and unlawful influence.

City Council must agree to operate under the council-manager system that voters said they preferred in a December referendum. The means Ms. Wilson gets to run daily operations, including hiring and firing. But she must communicate better with her seven elected bosses. Also, council members must work together in the best interest of citizens.

City Council must be transparent, reveal details early enough for the public to be fully informed and make the best deal for taxpayers.

Mayor Steve Benjamin, City Council and others must step forward and lead.

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