WE HAVE NOT always agreed with Mayor Steve Benjamin, but he has been a smart, effective — although at times inflexible — leader who has helped cajole, nudge and drag Columbia into position to accomplish great things.
Voters should give Mr. Benjamin the responsibility of helping the city capitalize on the many opportunities before it. He faces City Councilman Moe Baddourah and businessman Larry Sypolt in the Nov. 5 election
Mr. Benjamin entered office in 2010 with a bold vision for Columbia as “the most talented, educated and entrepreneurial city in the Southeast,” a hopeful message at a moment when the city was awash in red ink, in search of yet another police chief and lacking direction. Despite being simply a glorified council member in Columbia’s council-manager system, Mr. Benjamin pledged to increase the stature and effectiveness of the mayor’s office and lead efforts to restore Columbia’s finances, build consensus on the council, spur economic development and cultivate regional relationships.
For the most part, he has served well. He cites successes such as thousands of new jobs, tens of millions of dollars in business investment and decreasing crime rates. He and the council pulled the city out of its deep financial hole, and Main Street is making a comeback as new businesses, office space, retail stores and restaurants open. Also, mayors from across the Midlands now meet regularly to explore ways to improve the region’s fortunes, thanks to his leadership.
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But not all is perfect. While he worked to build consensus on the council early on, Mr. Benjamin understandably grew weary of what he saw as indecisiveness or intentional delay that allowed time — and possibly opportunity — to slip away. He pushed aggressively for decisions, leading to vigorous debate — and sometimes close votes — on the city’s purchase the Palmetto Compress warehouse, the hasty approval of the Bull Street development agreement and allowing citizens to decide whether Columbia should be led by a strong mayor.
There also has been a disappointing lack of openness on such issues as the hiring process for the city manager and warnings the council received from its attorneys not to approve the Bull Street development agreement without identifying funds to meet the city’s commitment. Mr. Benjamin must lead the council in protecting citizens’ right to know.
Mr. Baddourah says that instead of making projects such as Bull Street and Palmetto Compress priorities, he would be a back-to-basics mayor and would focus the city on hiring a police chief, rebuilding water and sewer systems, developing a storm drainage plan and developing a plan for pedestrian crosswalks and bike lanes. Mr. Sypolt, a former sheriff’s deputy and FBI analyst, is focused largely on improving the Police Department and giving the chief the authority to lead it. Yet while both make some legitimate points, neither exhibits the depth of knowledge, understanding or vision to lead our capital city.
In addition to the great opportunities before it, Columbia also faces great challenges, from addressing crime and homelessness to closing the revolving door at the police chief’s office. On Dec. 3, voters could give the next mayor the power to address those issues directly. Mr. Benjamin’s temperament, willingness to make tough decisions and vision qualify him to be that person.