THE MAJORITY of Columbia City Council members who imposed their own will in denying voters an opportunity to decide whether the mayor should be the city’s full-time chief executive failed to address the most important question: What is the people’s will?
That’s too important a question to leave unanswered. Fortunately, there are leaders in this community who understand that and intend to gather enough voters’ signatures to force the council to place the matter on the ballot. It is not only appropriate but necessary to finally give voters an opportunity to decide.
We had hoped that council members would put aside their personal feelings about a strong mayor and allow voters to express their preference. And we commend Mayor Steve Benjamin and councilmen Cameron Runyan and Brian Newman for voting to place a referendum on the ballot Nov. 5. But they were outvoted 4-3 last week by council members Tameika Isaac Devine, Leona Plaugh, Sam Davis and Moe Baddourah, whose argument that there’s no groundswell of support for a referendum is at the very best dubious.
A December 2009 poll of Columbia residents conducted for The State by Metromark Market Research found that 58 percent of respondents want a full-time mayor. Only 19 percent said they preferred a city manager, with the remaining 23 percent undecided. A 2005 survey conducted by Quinn and Associates found that 60 percent of active city voters favored a strong elected mayor. And business leaders say they are encouraged by two recent polls, which have not been made public, that found broad support for a full-time mayor.
Although there have been threats over the years that citizens would take matters into their own hands if City Council didn’t OK a vote, that has never materialized.
But the executive committee of the Greater Columbia Chamber of Commerce voted unanimously Aug. 6 to endorse a referendum and to pursue a petition drive if City Council refused to place the issue on the November ballot. State law requires that at least 15 percent of registered voters sign such a petition; in Columbia, that’s about 11,000 signatures. Business leaders will join with neighborhood organizers, civic groups and the faith community to develop a campaign.
Lee Bussell, chairman of the chamber’s executive committee, said no definite decision has been made on trying to get the matter on the Nov. 5 ballot. That might not be realistic, since by law the process would have to be completed by early October.
Whether the referendum is held Nov. 5 or later isn’t the most important thing. The most important thing is to determine — once and for all — whether voters want an unelected, unaccountable manager to continue hiring and firing and overseeing daily affairs or whether they prefer an elected, empowered mayor to assume those duties. Let the voters’ will be heard. And done.