Backers of changing Columbia to a strong-mayor form of government landed one-two punches Tuesday.
Supporters of a referendum to change from the city’s traditional strong-manager form submitted petitions with what they assert are sufficient signatures to force City Council to put a strong-mayor option to voters – they hope on Nov. 5.
“Let’s have this vote on Nov. 5th,” said Henry McMaster, a former state attorney general and one of the co-chairmen of the ad hoc Columbia Citizens for Better Government that organized the petition drive about three weeks ago.
Richland County election officials still must, under state law, certify signatures on the petition as being Columbia voters.
Meanwhile, Mayor Steve Benjamin, who favors a strong-mayor system, called for a special City Council meeting at 6:15 p.m. Wednesday to see if, knowing the cost of a special election and that so many have signed the petition, council will vote to place the change in form of government on the Nov. 5 ballot.
McMaster and other members of the citizens group at a City Hall news conference pressured council to act quickly so taxpayers would not have to foot the bill for a special election, a cost the backers estimate would be $150,000. Backers argue that council should act now to avoid that cost.
Council twice within 15 months rejected such a move, each time by one vote. That triggered the petition drive.
If council reversed itself Wednesday and ordered a referendum, that action would stop the need to certify the names on the petition delivered in four blue boxes to Columbia’s clerk of council shortly after 4 p.m. Tuesday.
If council again rejects placing the referendum on the ballot, then voters on the petition, which organizers estimate has 19,000 to 20,000 signatures, must be certified by the beleaguered Richland County Election Commission and the county elections and voter registration office.
Under state law, the county office – widely blamed for botching last November’s presidential election – has up to 15 days to verify that at least 15 percent of eligible Columbia voters have signed the petition. Petition backers say that magic number is 11,063 eligible voters.
They say the Georgia-based company hired to run the petition drive, National Ballot Access, has pre-certified about 12,500 signatures as those of eligible voters who live within the Columbia city limits.
Matthew Richardson, a Columbia attorney who is working for the citizens group, said pre-certification should clear the way for quick certification by the end of this week.
Howard Jackson, the newly hired director of county elections and voter registration, said he will not know until Wednesday how long certification might take. The petition was delivered to Jackson’s office about 4:40 p.m., so the elections office staff has not evaluated the paperwork.
Richardson said once the county certifies enough names, an election must be held no sooner than 30 days or longer than 90 days from certification, according to the state law that governs petitions.
“Obviously, Nov. 5 is a viable date,” Richardson said.
If the petition is certified, City Council cannot refuse to hold a public vote. But council must adopt an ordinance to place the issue on the ballot. An ordinance requires two votes that are separated by six days. A special meeting Wednesday would clear the way for a final vote at council’s regularly scheduled Sept. 16 meeting.
The citizens and business group leading the petition drive has bipartisan leadership from Democratic former Gov. Jim Hodges and McMaster, a Republican.
A 15 percent endorsement for a referendum is far short of the 50 percent plus one vote total that would be needed at the polls to change the city’s form of government. Those who spoke at the news conference all said they believe the change would be approved by voters.
State law also spells out a complicated certification formula.
County elections officials must check each of the first 500 signatures by comparing the signatures to each voter’s application for a voter registration card.
After the first 500 are verified, the law allows elections officials to spot-check the remaining signatures. But they must check no fewer than one in 10 signatures.
Once the ratio of random checking is established – say 1 in 5 – elections officials should stick with that ratio through the rest of the verification process, said S.C. Election Commission director Marci Andino.
When officials determine the proportion of verified signatures – say 50 percent – they add the verified number to the first 500. That process continues until the verified number reaches 15 percent of the city’s total registered voters or, presumably, 11,063 eligible voters.
If the random sampling does not reach the 15 percent threshold that state law requires, county elections officials must then start from the 501st signature and check each and every signature until arriving at the magic number.
Jackson said his office is awaiting the Nov. 5 ballot database from the state Election Commission. If that arrives before certification is complete, the database would have to be recalibrated to include a “form of government” ballot question.
Further, ballots still have to be printed, absentee ballots must be mailed and official public notices of the election must be issued.
The petitions themselves must meet the state’s legal standards. Besides spelling out the purpose of the petition drive, each person who signs must write and print his or her name, address and precinct where they vote.
Each signature must be numbered, as must each page of the petition. The names of people who signed can be stricken through, but cannot be removed from the petition.
If you want to go to the City Council meeting
Columbia City Council is meeting Wednesday to again take up whether to authorize a referendum on changing the city’s form of government to a strong-mayor system. Council has twice rejected the move, but a petition drive might change some members’ minds.