Published Oct. 23, 2002
TWO OF THE CITY of Columbia’s department heads have left. City manager Leona Plaugh is a finalist for the same job in Little Rock, Ark. Assistant city manager and police chief Charles P. Austin is a finalist for the position of Durham, North Carolina’s police chief.
We do not know if Ms. Plaugh and Mr. Austin, the city’s No. 1 and No. 2 administrators respectively, are leaving or not. However, it seems the city’s administrative leadership structure is in serious disarray. Mayor Bob Coble has gone so far as to call the city’s predicament “chaos.”
It is important that there be some stability at the top to ensure service needs are met and employee morale is not damaged. It is equally important to make sure long-term projects continue to be managed.
As city leaders go about deciding how to address these management issues, we suggest — as we did several months ago — this is a good time to study the city’s governing structure. Part of that discussion should be to determine whether it is time for Columbia to elect a full-time mayor.
We believe Columbia might benefit from a system in which the mayor is the chief operating officer as well as the person people look to for leadership and vision. The mayor should appoint and remove employees, supervise departments and submit the budget to the council. Also, a mayor would be the appropriate person to handle political decisions of the magnitude of the city government reorganization that led us to where we are today.
Many current problems can be attributed to Ms. Plaugh’s failed attempt to push through a major government reorganization without proper approval from City Council. The shakeup, which affects about a dozen department heads and hundreds of employees, caused much confusion. Although the council has now signed off on the changes, with modifications, things have not returned to normal, and no one knows when they will.
Some council members claim that good people have been hurt in the process. Since Ms. Plaugh decided in July to reorganize city government, public works director Wanda Dunn resigned and is suing the city over the reorganization. Also, Parks director Allison Baker left for a parks department job in Chesapeake, Va.
It might be that Ms. Plaugh or a new city manager could regain control and put the city back on solid footing. However, there is some indication that council members might at least be willing to study the idea of moving away from having the city run by a hired administrator who is not elected by the people. Ms. Plaugh has said that talk of the city converting to a strong-mayor form of government influenced her decision to apply for the Little Rock job.
Our desire for the city to consider the strong-mayor system has little to do with Ms. Plaugh. Ms. Plaugh actually was considered a refreshing change from some of her predecessors, who were more concerned with picking up garbage than taking care of regional issues and economic growth. Council members have made it clear at times that past managers sometimes ignored their wishes, were too caught up in the mundane or were bad at following through on crucial issues.
The strong-mayor system might not be the answer to the city’s problems. However, it is a concept well worth studying in light of past as well as current problems with the city manager’s office.