October 20, 2013

Council candidates duel over how to say no

The race for one Columbia City Council race is shaping up as a polite disagreement on the best way to say no.

The race for one Columbia City Council race is shaping up as a polite disagreement on the best way to say no.

Incumbent Leona Plaugh’s re-election theme is “keeping them honest,” a message she says describes her role as a taxpayer advocate at City Hall.

It’s also led to a nickname of “Madame No” for Plaugh, a former city manager well-versed in the mechanics of municipal operations.

Challenger Todd Walter promises to offer alternatives when he opposes measures, calling that a key difference.

Plaugh, he says, often is obstinate without suggesting a vision “to move forward.”

That’s being negative instead of productive, he says. “There’s a point where you have to move beyond that.”

But Plaugh says it’s vital to question proposals, particularly on big ticket projects like Bull Street redevelopment with financial commitments that will last for years.

She insists she’s recommended other approaches but “I haven’t always been able to sway” other city leaders to take interest in those ideas.

And the rush to push some proposals through doesn’t always leave time to come up with other possibilities, she said.

The candidates’ differences go beyond style.

Plaugh opposes a strong mayor referendum on a Dec. 3 ballot that would give the mayor more control over daily operations of City Hall. Walter is undecided on it.

Walter favors a ban on city officials at crime scenes, an idea that Plaugh joined other council members in defeating.

But both are similar in their outlooks in other respects, such as demanding spending conservatism and streamlining hurdles for new development.

Voters in District 4 — the area in the city with the highest home values — will choose between the pair at the nonpartisan Nov. 5 ballot.

The district stretches across the eastern and southern edges of the city, with a sliver into Northeast Richland. It includes Fort Jackson and areas around it, Heathwood, parts of the Hamptons and neighborhoods along Garners Ferry Road.

Here is a snapshot of other themes each candidate is sounding:

•  Plaugh promises to push for “excellent basic services” in law enforcement, fire protection, water and sewer and water, trash disposal and drainage at affordable cost.

City standards that guide development are “archaic” and need to be updated, she said.

Some officials warn that water and sewer rates probably will have to rise to pay for improvements, increases that Plaugh promises to keep as low as possible.

Besides being a voice for taxpayers, Plaugh said she’ll keeping pushing to make city operations more transparent for the public.

Plaugh, 63, is an entertainment talent executive. It’s a career that began after her ouster as city manager in 2003. She lives in the King’s Grant neighborhood.

•  Walter says city leaders too often forget to “do the basics very well and the rest will follow.”

More attention needs to be paid to the economic impact of decisions, he said.

City leaders also need to adopt more incentives to attract companies that provide new jobs as part of an effort to become “more business-friendly,” he said.

Many parks also need facelifts to make them more attractive as neighborhood gathering spots, he said.

And progress is lagging on expansion of technology so more residents pay bills online and learn about City Hall operations that way, he said.

Walter, 73, is a real estate consultant and developer making his first race for elective office. He lives in the Woodcreek Farms neighborhood.

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