ANALYSIS

Growing number of Columbia residents fed up with ‘dysfunctional’ City Council

cleblanc@thestate.comMarch 23, 2014 

— To say that municipal government in Columbia is in discord is to be polite.

More and more the “d” word of choice is “dysfunctional.”

A sampling last week of long-time residents and local leaders shows that the state of governance is nearing a low point or – as the more genteel might say, is merely a reflection of hyper-partisan, computer-enabled times.

Obvious tensions among council members or factions on council are, at best, making the Capital City look bad, those interviewed said. At worst, fractured government is strangling Columbia’s aspirations of becoming a great city.

And a growing number of residents have decided that they’re fed up.

“It used to be blacks and whites, the bluebloods and the poor,” said lifelong resident Bishop Redfern II of the Ecumenical Church of Christ. “Now we’re beginning to understand self-interest and narrow constituencies.

“This has to end somewhere.”

Former councilman and mayor Patton Adams said the state of City Council seems to be worse than when he served from the mid-1970s to 1990.

“I think there is a lot more suspicion as to council members about hidden agendas,” Adams said. “There is a lot more disrespect. That creates an atmosphere that makes it more difficult for city employees to concentrate on their own jobs when the leadership is in such disarray.”

Bob Coble, who was mayor for 20 years before Steve Benjamin’s election in 2010, chalks it all up to a difference in the mayors’ leadership styles and the Internet. He said it would be “almost unseemly” for him to criticize council.

“A good, old-fashioned argument in 1999 (was confined to council chambers),” Coble said. “Now you can watch it online. Disputes and confrontations are much more readily available.”

Council’s divisions seem to reflect splits in the community.

Many residents complained about the way council members respond to the public’s questions about big-ticket spending plans.

One of the strongest remarks from a fed-up resident came at a contentious Feb. 18 council meeting and public hearing on building a publicly funded minor-league baseball stadium in the proposed Bull Street neighborhood.

Rebecca Haynes, head of the Earlewood Community Citizens Organization, stepped to the microphone in a packed council chamber.

“I want to raise my family in a great downtown,” the normally measured Haynes said. “I am tired of the bickering, the grandstanding and the manipulation of residents by each and every one of you.”

The signs of strain have become increasingly apparent since last summer and more shrill in recent weeks.

Factions on council have complained privately for a year that other factions communicate with each other but not the rest of council on public issues.

Some members, primarily Leona Plaugh and Moe Baddourah, have said publicly that Benjamin should cease calling meetings with little notice to members and the public. Last summer, Plaugh interrupted a vacation to come back for an unexpected vote that put the strong-mayor referendum on the ballot – which reversed years of resistance by council.

Consider some key developments:

•  Benjamin, bruised by losing last fall’s strong-mayor referendum but emboldened by a landslide re-election vote a month earlier, continues to irk his detractors. He pushes actions that will linger for decades with thin majorities on council. The mayor argues that all voices are being heard and that the city needs action now.

•  Last week, Benjamin offered council a civility pledge that two members refused to sign on the spot. They complained he had sprung it on them. Skeptics say the mayor intentionally painted Plaugh and Baddourah into a incivility corner.

•  Council members often clash and call each other harsh names in public. Behind the scenes, they question each other’s truthfulness and point to inconsistent stances by fellow members.

•  City manager Teresa Wilson, criticized as in over her head during the early part of her first year, has begun to assert herself and to work with a shifting council contingent. They fought off a last-minute effort to sidetrack the selection of a new police chief, the most important personnel decision a city manager makes.

That vote came during one of those “moment’s notice” meetings while Benjamin was in Taiwan.

Wilson settled that debate Friday by naming a new chief.

•  The “vote no” members of council – Plaugh and Baddourah – often are painted as obstructionists. Their backers consider them the balance to Benjamin’s grand plan to make Columbia a “world-class city.”

Spreading blame

Bob Wynn, president of the Arsenal Hill Neighborhood Association that overlooks City Hall, attends most council meetings and is active in the Columbia’s civic life.

Wynn trusts that council will find its way. “Steps are being taken to deal with it,” he said. “And to continue to talk about it just perpetuates it.”

He points blame at cynical residents, too.

“Whether it’s distrust of the business community or the law enforcement community or the legal community or one faction against another, there needs to be healing on the part of the public, too.”

Wynn notes uncivil behavior has erupted recently in West Columbia, Chapin and Batesburg-Leesville.

“Certainly, something is in the air that people are less and less enchanted with their leaders. We’ve got to stop both trains from moving in the direction of mistrust and apprehension,” Wynn said.

Redfern, who has lived in Columbia most of his 64 years, said city leaders need to stop being petty and learn to focus on “the grander plan” to improve quality of life.

“There is less fecal matter in our water than there is in our political conversations,” Redfern said.

Residents should be more trusting in elected leaders, even though expensive projects such as a city-owned hotel/convention center, luring more airlines to the airport and city-managed development of the CanalSide property have gone bust.

“We are soiled by the bad deals and petty partisan politics of the past,” Redfern said.

Yet, the pieces are in place for a better city, and residents are willing to pay the bills that come with progress, he said.

Rising water and sewer bills get paid. And taxpayers last year approved a higher sales tax to pay for better roads and other services.

“We’ve annexed everything we can possibly annex. All (council) has to do is get together and come up with something reasonable because we’ve all agreed to pay for it.”

Adams agrees with Coble that emails, bloggers and social media have fed the discord and to some degree displaced the traditional influence of neighborhood organizations.

“It creates more voices and more opinions directed toward council and can have the effect of causing confusion ... or causing council to reconsider a vote,” Adams said. “It slows (council) down, and sometimes that’s good. But it can slow it down to a point of absurdity.”

Mary Baskin Waters, co-president of the Historic Heathwood Neighborhood Association, said the tenor of council is the worst she’s experienced since moving here in the early 1960s.

Waters considers each member of council to be competent. But together they form an uncivil lot. She said the reaction from the public is “alarm.” She paused and change it to “concern.”

“I’m confident that they will work it out,” Waters said. “I think the stakes are too high.”

Efforts to heal, hand of God

Offers toward reconciliation have come from the Greater Columbia Community Relations Council, the Municipal Association of South Carolina, from former partisans in the form-of-government battle and from individual members of council.

Benjamin has organized a half-day of team-building exercises in May at Fort Jackson. Presumably, the event would bring esprit de corps – feelings of loyalty, enthusiasm and devotion to a group – to council.

In cooperation with the post commander, Fort personnel have arranged to put council through a scaled-back series of obstacle courses used for Army recruits. Members will rappel from the 40-foot-plus Victory Tower and maneuver rope bridges, all under the watchful eye of a drill sergeant, said Mike Ryan, a retired colonel who is the post’s director of strategic planning.

The idea is to have each council member lead exercises that emphasize leadership qualities as well as teamwork, Ryan said.

Council members also will fire rifles – at a simulated rifle range. Their session is to end with lunch in the recruits’ mess hall.

Despite the moans and groans from so many quarters in the city, Bishop Redfern strikes an upbeat yet foreboding note.

“I’m very optimistic,” he said. “I think God is going to intervene soon. And that’s what it’s going to take – intervention from God.”

Chronology of tensions

The strains on Columbia City Council and its relationship with activist residents has deteriorated during the past year. Here are some highlights of a litany of complaints.

July 9: Emotions boiled during the final vote on a contract to grant Greenville developer Bob Hughes control of construction in the 165-acre proposed Bull Street neighborhood.

A contingent on council and in the community complained that Mayor Steve Benjamin was moving too fast on committing as much as $100 million in public money without identifying how the city would pay for it. The mayor told the crowd that Hughes would walk away if council did not approve the agreement that day.

“It is a dark day when elected officials spend tens of millions of dollars without revealing the source of the funds,” former Richland County councilwoman and State House representative Candy Waites sternly told council.

Councilman Sam Davis had a nose-to-nose outside the meeting with perennial council candidate Joe Azar after Azar implied during the public hearing that the push for a quick vote smelled of kickbacks.

Aug. 13: Council holds a 13-hour meeting packed with hot-button issues that included competing plans for dealing with homelessness and committing up to $90 million for improvements to the water and sewer systems. The vote on utilities occurred at 3:30 a.m.

The homelessness decision was so muddled that some members were unsure what they had voted on. One member asked for a transcript of the meeting.

Councilwoman Tameika Isaac Devine accused Councilman Cameron Runyan of devising a secret plan to address the homeless while carving neighborhood organizations out of the proposal. A few months later, he would accuse Devine, a real estate attorney, of costing taxpayers about $158,000 by mishandling a city-backed, commercial loan

Nov. 5 mayor race: Baddourah’s challenge to Benjamin intensified tensions between him and the mayor, who would easily win a second term.

“I’ll stand up against the cronyism, political patronage, backroom deal-making and other abuses ...,” Baddourah said in campaign fliers. He later called Benjamin “a bully.”

Benjamin called Baddourah “a liar” for saying during a political forum that Benjamin intended to go to the scene of an incident that in July had led to the arrest of state NAACP president Lonnie Randolph on charges of creating a disturbance.

“It’s simply untrue,” Benjamin told a reporter, “and reveals a pattern of Mr. Baddourah stating untruths."

Dec. 3 referendum: Benjamin repeatedly painted council members who resisted putting a referendum on the ballot as obstructionists who feared a public vote to convert Columbia to a strong-mayor form of government.

A slim council majority had opposed that form of government for years.

Debate and rhetoric was strident on both sides. The referendum received majority support only after a citizen petition forced a vote. It ultimately was defeated soundly.

Reach LeBlanc at (803) 771-8664.

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