IF COLUMBIA IS to become the vibrant metropolitan city it can be, it must replace its slow, plodding form of government.
The city needs dynamic, accountable leadership. The present council-manager system dilutes responsibility, leaving no one in charge. As a result, critical issues languish or even die with no accounting over the fact that:
• A key reason talks between the city and SCANA over the transfer of the bus system dragged on for years was because there was no one dedicated to making the deal happen. No one could speak decisively for the city.
• The city is without a minor-league baseball for the first time in 22 years because there was no empowered leadership driving home the need to keep the Capital City Bombers in town. Mayor Bob Coble made various attempts with little support from the council. In the end, even the mayor backed away.
CanalSide, a community officials had pledged years ago to develop on the old prison site along the river, has sat empty because of the city’s inability to close a deal. The city recently sold the site to a developer.
The attempt to get needed property to complete the Three Rivers Greenway dragged on for years. In the end, it took the president of the University of South Carolina — a strong executive, but an unelected one — to get things moving.
If Columbia had a full-time mayor, it would stand a better chance of getting things done, and more quickly. If things go awry, people would know whom to blame.
Some are wary of giving too much power to one person. They say a strong-mayor system can be plagued by cronyism if a city elects the wrong person. But a vigilant council and engaged public can prevent that. Voters could remove the mayor every four years.
The present system has shortcomings that stifle progress and are tougher to overcome. There is little emphasis on the big picture — meaning vision and leadership. The knock on some past city managers has been that they were more concerned with picking up garbage than taking care of regional issues and economic growth. Council members accused some of the executives of sometimes ignoring their wishes and failing to follow through on crucial issues.
Miles Hadley served capably in his eight years as city manager, but some local leaders pushed for a strong mayor, saying he was slow to move on regional cooperation and was more of a plodder than a planner. Some council members said Mike Bierman, who followed Mr. Hadley in 1997, had problems dealing with day-to-day management. He also was perceived to be slow in addressing constituent complaints. Leona Plaugh, hired in 2001, stirred up the council, employees and the public by attempting to institute unilaterally a major government shake-up that would affect hundreds of employees. By all accounts, current city manager Charles Austin is doing an admirable job.
But this isn’t about any one manager. The bottom line is that unelected managers aren’t accountable to the people. They aren’t empowered to act and, with seven bosses, naturally find it difficult to handle delicate political decisions. With a disconnect between the manager and any political vision that may exist, initiatives often take too long to get started or don’t get done.
Columbia would stand a better chance of reaching its potential if led by a full-time mayor charged directly with carrying out the will of the voters.
Originally published on 09/05/2005