CHANGE doesn’t always come easy or without some trepidation — even when it is for the best. So the uneasiness and fear opponents express about empowering Columbia’s mayor to run the city’s day-to-day operations isn’t surprising.
Tuesday’s referendum isn’t the first time voters have been asked to adopt a significant change in the way the city is governed — all in the interest of moving our capital city forward. In times past, Columbians have chosen the city’s future over fear and responded affirmatively. They must do so again Tuesday.
This latest vote comes nearly 22 years to the day that another historic referendum changed the way the city is governed. On Dec. 15, 1981, voters agreed to move away from the at-large system used to elect City Council to the 4-2-1 plan, in which four members are chosen from districts and two are elected at-large along with a mayor. It took two years, legal wrangling, a U.S. Justice Department review and more before the system was actually implemented, resulting in the election of the first two African-American City Council members in 1983.
Many predicted 4-2-1 wouldn’t work, but the Greater Columbia Chamber of Commerce, the NAACP, black community leaders and others fought for the change in an effort to make the council more representative of and responsive to all residents. Over the years, 4-2-1 proved to be a model system and has been universally embraced. And despite claims to the contrary, that system would be unchanged if Columbia adopts the mayor-council (strong mayor) form of government.
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That historic change came decades after another significant decision in 1949 by Columbia’s electorate. For years, the city had operated under a commission system that allowed a five-member City Council to run Columbia as a fiefdom. It was a system rife with problems, leading this newspaper’s editorial board, the Columbia chamber and others to demand change; and in 1949 voters agreed to a change that put a city manager in charge of daily operations.
But while that change made sense 64 years ago, council-manager isn’t serving the city well today — a time when Columbia is poised for tremendous economic growth along the river, downtown, along the Bull Street corridor and beyond. When businesses and industry come calling with jobs, tax dollars and new opportunities, the city’s indecisive, unaccountable form of government doesn’t allow it to make definitive, timely decisions needed to seize the moment.
Columbia must push past the fear and trust the representative democracy we all cherish to allow an elected executive to lead this city.