Bolton: Municipal leaders in Lexington, Richland counties must clear the air and start governing

Associate EditorMarch 30, 2014 

— FORGET ABOUT Mr. Smith going to Washington.

The way some local elected officials in Lexington and Richland counties have been behaving, it appears Washington has gotten into Councilman Smith.

The conflict-oriented, polarized, incompliant temperament that has gripped our national — and, yes, our state — politics has flowed down to the local level and is clogging up the governing process. Like when inmate underwear and jumpsuits jammed Columbia sewer pipes, we know a gigantic sewage spill is headed our way.

Indeed, mistrust, self-centeredness and power plays have caused a backup in our local government pipeline. And it stinks.

When Columbia City Council members refuse to support proposals simply because they come from the mayor, it stinks. When the council or mayor rams initiatives through without considering legitimate calls for due care or more information, it stinks. When council members resort to name-calling and infighting, it stinks.

When tensions and grudges are allowed to fester and boil over to the point that the Batesburg-Leesville mayor tosses a councilman out of a meeting (really?), it stinks. When a power struggle between Chapin’s mayor and Town Council leads to finger-pointing and a court battle, it stinks. When the West Columbia mayor and council wrestle over who should control the meeting agenda, it stinks.

But what’s most odorous about it all is that these petty political squabbles affect how — and even if — the public’s business gets done.

It’s reprehensible enough that at the national and state levels the words “compromise” and “civility” and anything that might remotely lead to mutual solutions and good government have lost their power. Frankly, compromise has become so sullied that it’s dangerous even to mention that you’re willing to work across the aisle, let alone do it. One of the biggest knocks some fellow Republicans have of Sen. Lindsey Graham is that he actually talks to Democrats and sometimes, gulp!, compromises with them. So what if it’s good for the nation?

That’s the problem: So many people these days run for office under the pledge that they’ve got principles and, by golly, they’re going to stick to them no matter what. Voters are even electing people with the express purpose of them getting into office and “sticking to their guns,” regardless of how wrong they might be or how harmful it might be to getting things done.

Whatever the reason for the discord on local governing bodies — whether personality or ideological clashes or attempts by newcomers to “stick to their guns” — it’s time for our elected leaders to stop and clear the sewer lines, I mean, the air.

There’s no reason Columbia City Council can’t compromise on some of the issues that have council members peering at one another in distrust.

There’s no reason the Chapin Town Council can’t be more selfless and devise a common way forward that’s more about the needs of the people and less about securing power.

There’s no reason Batesburg-Leesville’s council can’t agree to move beyond some of the long-simmering differences and have civil meetings.

There’s no reason West Columbia City Council can’t focus on building agendas aimed at doing the people’s work.

Not only does the inability to get along stink, but it affects what’s most important: making sure local laws are made, the budget is balanced and people are getting quality, efficient services — you know, garbage collection, police and fire protection and, by all means, water and sewer.

While national and state politics are important and the need to work together is paramount, when the government closest to the people gets bogged down in conflict, it hurts quality of life. Not only that, it can filter into the community, pitting neighbor against neighbor.

So, what’s the way forward?

I’ve been reminding voters all year: This is the year of the watchdog. Voters and taxpayers must get involved with their government and hold elected leaders — all of them — accountable. Demand civility, unity and productive governance; if you don’t get it, make a change next election.

For the elected officials’ part, they must move beyond mistrust and assigning blame and work on building respectful relationships conducive to compromise and good government. They must intentionally tear down walls of division and build sturdy bridges of cooperation, civility and unity.

Local officials should take up offers for help from the Greater Columbia Community Relations Council and the Municipal Association of South Carolina and others.

While he’s taken some heat for how he rolled it out, at least Columbia Mayor Steve Benjamin has made an effort by calling for civility and asking fellow council members to sign a pledge. He’s also organized a half-day of team-building exercises in May at Fort Jackson.

Ultimately, elected officials have to just do it. No one made them serve; they volunteered. The job demands they work with people of different backgrounds and ideologies for the greater good.

It’s time to clear the air of this stench.

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

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