Exclusive: S.C. senator pushes for full-time mayor

Columbia City Council to discuss issue

01/09/2010 12:00 AM

01/08/2010 10:37 PM

Columbia City Council members will discuss Wednesday what it would take to change the city's form of government, after some prodding from a state senator whose district includes portions of the capital city.

State Sen. Darrell Jackson, D-Richland, says he will introduce a resolution in the General Assembly on Tuesday calling for City Council members to let voters decide in April whether the city should have a full-time mayor instead of a city manager hired by the seven-member City Council.

If City Council members won't put the proposal on the ballot, Jackson said, he plans to lead a petition drive to force the issue. April is when city residents go to the polls for city elections, including for mayor.

"We have seven mayors running a city ... and I just don't think that's in the best interest of the city," Jackson said. "It's certainly not in the best interest of what I call collective accountability."

Councilwoman Belinda Gergel has asked that council members discuss the issue at their scheduled meeting Wednesday at 9 a.m. at City Hall.

"My reasons for wanting to see it put on the ballot center on wanting to hear from our residents and our citizens," Gergel said. "Voters are going to be making very important decisions anyway. We might as well make this a part of that vote."

The moves are the strongest yet in years of discussion about changing the city government's structure. And because Mayor Bob Coble is not running for re-election, it comes at a time when the city will have its first new mayor in 20 years.

Columbia's city government is run by seven City Council members. Three, including the mayor, are elected citywide, and four are elected from districts. All the positions are part-time.

The only difference between the mayor and a City Council member is the mayor gets $17,000 a year while council members get $15,000. The mayor also runs the City Council meetings.

The city's day-to-day operations are run by a city manager, who is hired by the City Council. The city manager prepares and presents the annual budget for council's approval and hires and fires city employees.

A strong mayor would, in essence, be an elected city manager.

Howard Duvall, the long-time director of the Municipal Association of South Carolina who retired in 2008, said there would be time for City Council members to start the wheels turning - if they hurry.

City Council would have to vote to change the city's form of government, set the date of the referendum, and then ask the U.S. Department of Justice to OK the change.

That last step alone takes 60 days.

South Carolina is among states that must have election issues reviewed by the federal government under the Civil Rights Act.

"What (federal officials) will do is come in and ask people in the community what they think about this change. Is it going to hurt the ability of minorities to get hired by the city or get elected by the city?" Duvall said.

Duvall also said the change wouldn't short-circuit the process of running for mayor - even though the candidates signed up to run under a different form of city government. Filing for open council seats, including mayor, is ongoing and closes Feb. 5. The election is April 6. Those elected will take office July 1.

If the measure makes it to the ballot, and if voters approve it, it's still unclear when a change would take effect.

A strong mayor doesn't necessarily mean the end of the city's administrator, Duvall said.

"A strong-mayor form of government doesn't mean you have a mayor running the city 24/7," Duvall said. "You would normally have a city administrator working with you, and the mayor would be the out-front person, the visionary person, the organizer of the council."

Critics of the city's current council-manager form of government say it makes it easy for elected officials to shift the blame when things go wrong. An example would be the city's recent financial troubles, in which the city had three consecutive years of multi-million-dollar budget deficits because of poor accounting practices.

But supporters of the system believe it evenly distributes power among the city's elected officials to ensure all of the city's neighborhoods and interests are represented fairly.

"The council-manager form of government resulted in a balanced aspect of governmental services throughout the city of Columbia," said Councilman E.W. Cromartie, the longest serving member on council. "I will obviously discuss it as it comes up, but I would lean toward the process of maintaining the form of government that we currently have."

But Jackson was adamant that the strong mayor form of government has benefited cities like Charleston and New York without diluting the interests of those cities' populations.

"I think that argument is made by people who want to hold on to their power," Jackson said.

State law restricts what forms of government are available to cities. In 2007, a commission set up by the Columbia City Council explored options for changing the city's form of government, but most of the options discussed would have required a change in state law.

"If (state lawmakers) think that there needs to be a change," Devine said, "their position should be to explore those other things and see whether or not state law needs to be changed to allow more flexibility in things that we have, instead of trying to dictate to us which form of government we should have."

Jackson's resolution, and Gergel's agenda request, caused a stir Friday night as word spread to the announced mayoral candidates.

Steve Morrison, an attorney with Nelson Mullins Riley & Scarborough - the state's largest law firm - said, "I ... have not announced to run for a strong mayor. And, honestly, as a candidate, it would be important for me to know what the job is that I'm running for."

Morrison said he wouldn't drop out of the race if it meant he had to be a full-time mayor. However, he would advocate having the referendum in an off-year, or at least in an election that does not include the mayor's seat.

That position was echoed by several City Council members, including Devine and Daniel Rickenmann.

"I would not support it to be on the April ballot," Rickenmann said. "It's bad timing and a bad distraction. I don't think we ought to shove it under the rug and not look at it down the road. But right now I don't think is the correct time to do that."

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