Bolton: Columbia, SC leaders can turn things around

Associate EditorMarch 13, 2014 

— WHILE NOT all is well in our capital city, not all is lost either.

Columbia has many bright minds and dedicated citizens who love the city and want to see it not simply succeed, but exceed.

And it has elected officials who, while some have made questionable decisions or gotten mired in petty squabbles or engaged issues not in the best interest of the city, also want Columbia to do well.

Given the many possibilities Columbia has before it — think of the developing riverfront, a thriving Vista, a resurging downtown, a strong USC and the potential of the proposed Bull Street development and Innovista — it has ample opportunity to become a thriving city.

But its leaders must acknowledge there are problems. And then seek to bring calm, common sense and compromise to the table to de-poison the environment — on City Council and in the community. Then they must take concrete steps to fix those problems and restore public confidence.

There is hope.

Columbia Mayor Steve Benjamin’s call this week for a reset might not be the end-all-be-all, but it is a good first step in the right direction. The mayor has asked council members and citizens to join him in an effort to promote civility as well as respectful dialogue.

“In the coming days and weeks I want to hear your ideas on how we can help bring civility back to our civic discourse and I’ll be introducing a number of proposals as well including instituting new Citywide Civility Standard and Accord,” Mr. Benjamin said via news release.

“But in the meantime, I am asking that we take next week’s regular meeting of City Council as an opportunity to clear the board. Let’s not take up any business that is not absolutely essential. That means no vote on baseball, no investigations, no discussion that isn’t positive, empowering or community building.”

He asked that the entire community come together to improve public dialogue and develop a vision for moving the city forward.

“Over the past several months the tone and tenor of our public discourse has left a great deal to be desired as passionate debate and constructive criticism has too often devolved into divisiveness, distrust and personal attack,” the mayor said.

“Let me be clear: the responsibility to maintain a positive, civil dialogue rests with every single citizen of our city, public official and member of the press. But a higher duty is owed by our elected officials and you deserve better from us.”

The mayor said that the current environment is more than just a distraction. “It is destructive and, as your elected leaders, we must lead the way both in action and by example.”

He asked that the community “take a breath.”

“Let’s start talking with each other instead of at one another. Let’s put aside whatever personal disagreements we may have and start respecting each other, if not as individuals then at least as those the people of Columbia have chosen to represent them.”

“Let’s take a step back and remember why we’re here, why we chose to serve in the first place — to make our community a better place to live, work, worship, play and raise a family.”

While Mr. Benjamin started with City Council, he has reached out to many in the community, asking them to come together and talk about building bridges of civility.

Of course, when we talk about civility, we’ve got to be clear about what we mean. It isn’t simply not staring down your nemesis or even being polite. For civil society to work, differing opinions must be embraced as vehicles to compromise and better ideas; it’s OK to disagree as long as you respect the other person.

I first learned of the mayor’s proposal when he shared some parts of it with me via an email (he’s out of the country) after reading my Sunday column in which I asserted that not all is well in Columbia and that people’s confidence in their local government is low. I pointed to Richland County’s rogue elections board (its members should resign), the disarray at the city’s Police Department and rifts between council members that have affected the tone of debates and, ultimately, governance. On Thursday, I wrote another column about Richland County residents’ anxiety about how County Council will administer the $1 billion expected to be generated by the transportation sales tax projects as well as how transit officials will negotiate an agreement for a new bus operator.

Despite the challenges, there’s no reason that Columbia City and Richland County officials can’t turn things around.

Yes, it will take civility and compromise and commitment. Yes, it will mean controlling tempers and putting egos in check. It will take slowing down sometimes to make sure everyone understands what is about to happen. There will be times when lines must be drawn and decisions made. It’s all about getting the right balance through meaningful give-and-take.

In my Sunday column, I singled out Mr. Benjamin as a person who should take the lead to get things back on track. It’s not just because he’s mayor, although that’s reason enough. But the fact is that he’s smart, affable and has the ability to do it — if he so chooses.

As I’ve said before, I believe Mayor Benjamin is the right leader for Columbia — and at the right time. He has a vision that challenges the Midlands to move beyond its comfort zone to become a world-class city. He has continually declared that Columbia has potential to become “the most talented, educated and entrepreneurial city” in the Southeast. This is about far more than economic development; it’s about human capital — the people of Columbia.

That’s why it’s important to build, rebuild and nurture relationships. That’s central to the OneColumbia theme Mr. Benjamin has channeled since taking office.

That said, Mr. Benjamin’s hard-charging ways have at times proven to be detrimental to consensus building.

If his call for civility in word and deed is going to be more than an exercise, he’s going to have to be more deliberative at times. But there’s plenty of blame to go around; more tentative leaders and citizens also will need to move beyond incrementalism and be willing to take some chances. None of that will happen without communication, trust and compromise.

I don’t know what will come of it all, but it’s worth taking a step back and doing just what the mayor asks: Forget about taking votes and divisive rhetoric and issues for a moment. Rebuild the bonds of trust and civility. Identify common ground.

And there’s nothing more common than the fact that all Columbians want this to be a city that isn’t simply a nice place to work and raise children but a world-class destination that lures new residents, visitors and businesses.

No, not all is well in our capital city, but greatness often comes from tension. Why not in Columbia?

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

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