Bolton: Strong mayor caught in crossfire

Associate EditorJuly 17, 2014 

Warren Bolton

TIM DOMINICK/TDOMINICK@THESTATE.

— AFTER VOTERS rejected an effort in December to empower Columbia’s mayor to run day-to-day affairs, I suspected the Midlands had heard the last of strong mayor for a while.

But strong mayor is back in the spotlight — this time in the smaller municipalities of Chapin and West Columbia.

While I’m a big supporter of strong mayor, I’m conflicted by the possibility that two referendums could be on the ballot in the fall — one aimed at constraining Chapin’s strong mayor and another focused on empowering West Columbia’s weakened mayor.

Perhaps I should pounce on the opportunity to defend strong mayor in one instance and get it implemented in another. After all, I did lead our editorial board’s charge over the past decade and a half to get Columbia to adopt strong mayor. The board has long supported having an empowered, elected executive with whom the buck stops running day-to-day affairs at the federal, state and local level.

So why am I conflicted about what’s happening in Chapin and West Columbia? What concerns me is that strong mayor has become a focus, not because of thoughtful contemplation about what is the best governing structure for these municipalities, but as a last-ditch effort to address other troubling issues that won’t be resolved by a change in the form of government: personality clashes and power struggles among the mayor and council as well as their inability — or refusal — to work collaboratively.

Consider these snapshots of what’s going on in Chapin and West Columbia, and you’ll see what I mean.

•  In Chapin, Mayor Skip Wilson, using his position as strong mayor, has operated as a bull in a china shop. He’s made unilateral decisions and refused to hold council meetings or allow certain issues to be discussed, among other things. Mr. Wilson, whose recent firing of the town’s long-time clerk further angered council members, has twice won court challenges to his authority over daily operations, including personnel and finances.

But some members of the council argue that the mayor routinely oversteps his authority, pointing to the clerk’s dismissal as one example.

Mayor Wilson insists he’s trying to do what voters indicated they wanted when they elected him over Stan Shealy, who had served as mayor 32 years. But I don’t think anyone in Chapin would suggest that the division and negative image his strategy has brought the town are what they were expecting when they elected Mr. Wilson.

Little meaningful work is getting done as the mayor and council remain locked in this power struggle. Some in the town are seeking to force a referendum that would reduce significantly the mayor’s control on personnel, finances and agendas; the council would assume control.

I can’t see any reason why Mr. Wilson shouldn’t be able to be effective without all the fighting and legal wrangling. The Chapin mayor does have significant power, some of which the council apparently ceded to the mayor over the years, perhaps because Stan Shealy had served so long and ably that people trusted him.

If Mr. Wilson sought to build bridges rather than ramrod his way through the process, there’s no reason he — along with the council — couldn’t get things done.

That said, the council also has to realize that voters did choose Mr. Wilson as mayor; council members must find a way to work with him.

Unfortunately, Mr. Wilson is behaving in a manner that gives fodder to those strong-mayor critics who say an empowered executive has too much leeway to act as an imperial ruler.

If Mr. Wilson isn’t careful, his antics could lead to him losing some power — and affect what happens in the West Columbia referendum.

•  In West Columbia, Mayor Joe Owens and a majority of the council have been engaged in a power struggle for months over who should control the agenda and meetings.

Council members complained about the way the mayor managed the agenda and meetings and charged that Mr. Owens was intolerant of others’ views. Mr. Owens said council members were upset because he is outspoken and he took away council perks. Ultimately, the council voted to strip the mayor of his control over meetings and to rotate that duty annually.

Instead of engaging in a legal battle, Owens supporters engineered a successful petition campaign aimed at restoring power taken from him, and then some. City Council has scheduled the referendum for Sept. 30.

Interestingly, if strong mayor is approved in West Columbia, Mr. Owens and future mayors will receive even more power than the position held before the council stripped it of some of its authority.

But will giving the mayor control over day-to-day operations address the issues that caused all the fuss? No. As a matter of fact, it could make matters worse. If the council and mayor are fighting now over the limited power the mayor traditionally has had, giving him more power will just create a bigger fight.

The bottom line is that the infighting on the Chapin and West Columbia councils isn’t about what form of government works best in those municipalities. These are duels over power, and strong mayor has gotten caught in the crossfire.

Regardless of what happens here, this shouldn’t be seen as a poor reflection on strong mayor. It’s a reflection of poor leadership. It’s about elected officials who have failed to work out differences and seek compromise.

For whatever reason, we’ve entered into this era of politics where even on the local level, we get intractable, my-way-or-the-highway representatives serving.

Whether you’re a strong mayor or weak mayor, you’ve got to deal with the council members you are elected to serve with. And town and city councils, whether they’re dealing with a strong mayor or not, have to recognize that people do elect mayors based on the vision they articulate, and council members need to find a way to work with those elected executives.

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

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