Columbia City Council can’t agree to be civil

cleblanc@thestate.comMarch 18, 2014 

— Relationships are so damaged on Columbia City Council that all members would not agree Tuesday night to sign a pledge to be considerate of each other.

Four of the six council members present signed a “Voluntary Code of Civil Public Discourse,” but two declined. And one of the signees said the words in the document mean little if council members don’t change their conduct.

The pledge contains rules of civility and reads in part, “To refrain from engaging in name calling, insults, demeaning or inflammatory remarks.”

Mayor Steve Benjamin presented the pledge, read it aloud, acknowledged that he is part of the problem and asked members to sign it. He called it “an incredible step forward.”

Councilwoman Leona Plaugh and Councilman Moe Baddourah balked.

“The way to bring this council together is not to bring something before us unseen and then ask us to sign it,” Plaugh said. “So many times we are handed something and told, here, vote on it. I feel that this perpetuates the problem.

“I ask the mayor and members of this council, when will we talk (about the strains among members)? There ought to be dialogue about why we are where we are.”

“That’s what we’re doing,” Benjamin said.

“No, we’re not,” she said.

Baddourah said he wanted to read the pledge more closely before signing it.

That prompted some residents in City Hall chambers to snicker. “I ask that you respect my opinion,” Baddourah said after the audience reaction.

The signees are Benjamin and council members Sam Davis, Cameron Runyan and Tameika Isaac Devine. Councilman Brian DeQuincey Newman was absent from the meeting.

Devine said of the pledge, “I don’t think this is enough. I hope we don’t sign this and then act as if this miraculously is going to solve this, because it’s not.”

She also told Benjamin she hopes members are not signing “because you asked them or because it looks good for the press.”

The “deep distrust” and unrest has been going on “for the better part of a year,” Devine said.

Benjamin added, “If we can’t even agree on this, these (principles in the pledge), then we have a serious problem.”

Davis said he signed the pledge because, “Every now and then (people) say, ‘I was wrong.’ And then they move forward.”

Runyan said it’s difficult to rebuild a broken trust. But the pledge “sets the right tone and tenor” for council relations.

Strains on council grew increasingly apparent during last fall’s council elections, followed the next month by a divisive referendum to adopt a strong-mayor form of government. Some of the re-elected incumbents promised then to work together better as a group.

During the mayoral campaign, Baddourah referred to Benjamin as a “bully.” Benjamin pointedly chided the District 3 councilman during candidate forums and at council meetings. The word “liar” has been uttered in meetings.

In recent weeks, Runyan and Devine have tangled.

Runyan questioned Devine’s work as an attorney in closing a 2004 city-backed commercial loan that he maintains will cost taxpayers nearly $158,000 because it was improperly closed.

Last week, council called a special meeting to slam the door on Runyan’s one-man call to stop the city manager’s selection of a police chief so council could reopen the debate of turning the Police Department over to the sheriff.

Runyan also referred to the city manager as “a bureaucrat” less qualified than the sheriff to oversee a police force. He apologized later and said he had let “my mouth get ahead of my brain.”

Devine called Runyan a “rogue councilman” and scolded him during the special meeting for trying to redirect council’s stated support of the city manager exercising her authority to pick a chief.

Benjamin’s request to sign the pledge came moments after leaders of the city’s Urban League and Greater Columbia Community Relations Council cautioned council that discord is hurting Columbia’s reputation, hindering economic growth.

Urban League president J.T. McLawhorn said he hears comments about Columbia such as, “So why are you making national news saying ugly things about other people?

“We must embrace civility to send a message,” McLawhorn said.

Benjamin then submitted the pledge, crafted for public officials several years ago by the Community Relations Council. It reads in part: “... I agree that every person is due a certain amount of respect, even if I do not agree with him/her.

“I believe that the greater good cannot and will not be served unless we intentionally practice basic civilized discourse,” the document states.

Pledge of Professional Conduct

Reach LeBlanc at (803) 771-8664.

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