Columbia headed for a Dec. 3 vote on strong mayor

09/18/2013 9:34 PM

09/19/2013 12:09 AM

Columbians might get to vote Dec. 3 on changing the city’s form of government if a citizens’ petition drive forces a referendum, City Council decided Wednesday night in yet another close vote.

There were not enough votes to put a referendum on the November ballot.

Councilman Sam Davis again cast the deciding 4-3 vote that separates the Nov. 5 City Council elections from a strong-mayor referendum. Last week, Davis voted for a decision on the form of government in November.

“I personally can live with it in November or December,” said Davis, the current council’s longest-serving member who is facing opposition for the first time since his first race for the District 1 seat.

The tension of council’s debate Wednesday was heightened by the news that Richland County elections director Howard Jackson’s office would disclose its findings of the petition drive Thursday morning. The city manager and city attorney said Jackson would not say what time on Thursday his findings would be delivered to the city.

By state law, county elections officials must determine whether a petition drive is certified, meaning it has enough signatures of qualified voters to mandate that council hold a referendum.

Joining Davis in voting for a Dec. 3 referendum – if the petition is certified – were council members Tameika Isaac Devine, Leona Plaugh and Moe Baddourah.

Voting for a Nov. 5 referendum were Mayor Steve Benjamin and councilmen Cameron Runyan and Brian DeQuincey Newman.

After the vote, Benjamin, who has pushed hard for a city government led by an elected chief executive, predicted voters would approve a strong-mayor system.

During the debate, Benjamin chided those on council who have balked at a referendum that would coincide with the re-election campaigns of four members, including himself.

“If there is a vote,” Benjamin said during a 21/2-hour debate and public hearing in the Eau Claire print building, “it is because the people of Columbia have compelled you to have an election.”

He repeatedly told council members who said they want to wait on the petition and to allow time for public education forums that they were wasting taxpayer money on a special election and “suppressing” voter turnout by pushing the referendum to a time of year that voters are not used to going to the polls.

Devine countered that Benjamin shares the blame for a special election because of the way he tried to push through a referendum decision with a series of emergency council meetings, often with short notice to council and the public.

“So the timing is not just our fault,” Devine told Benjamin. “It is your fault as well.”

Benjamin’s remark about voter suppression prompted catcalls from some in the audience who back a Dec. 3 date, first proposed Tuesday by a newly organized group of citizens. That group was pushing against an organized campaign for a Nov. 5 vote, led by the Greater Columbia Chamber of Commerce, neighborhood leaders and others.

Devine and Plaugh led council’s debate Wednesday against a Nov. 5 referendum.

“We’re not stopping anyone from voting,” Devine said. “But I think it’s incumbent upon us to make sure they’re armed with the right information.”

Devine focused on countering Benjamin’s position. Plaugh tended to hammer at what she said was unclear in state law on the powers of a strong mayor, on the practical changes that must be made in city laws to accommodate such a major change and on what she said are unanswered questions about the powers of a strong-mayor versus the powers of council.

Benjamin and city attorney Ken Gaines repeatedly said the powers of the mayor and council are spelled out in the law and that council cannot change them or write a job description for a strong mayor that is different from the statutory powers granted to such a job by the Legislature in 1975.

“Have you seen any other legal opinions?” Plaugh said to Gaines when he explained his legal analysis of a new form of government.

“I haven’t seen any,” Gaines responded.

“So you’re charting new territory?” she said, calling the state law flawed.

“I don’t think it’s flawed,” Gaines said.

More than a dozen people addressed council before the vote. Most objected to a referendum on Nov. 5, saying they want to better understand the changes.

“We need an explainer-in-chief,” Minnie Wilson-Bivens said to laughs. “I need to know what it’s all about – not in legalese.”

Oliver Francis argued for a vote in November.

“We got seven chiefs and no Indians,” Francis said of council’s seven members. “That’s got to be changed. We got to do it right now.”

Reach LeBlanc at (803) 771-8664. Staff Writer Dawn Hinshaw contributed.

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