COLUMBIA’S mayor iS the city’s elected leader, but he is not the person who actually calls the shots.
In Columbia’s council-manager form of government, the mayor is essentially a council member who presides over meetings. He has no administrative authority. City government is actually run by a manager whose name most people do not know. It is the manager who hires, fires and sets employee salaries.
Anyone who mistakenly thought Mayor Bob Coble ran the city learned otherwise during the recent flap over a proposed realignment of city government. City Manager Leona Plaugh stirred up some council members, employees and members of the public by attempting to unilaterally institute a major shake-up that would affect hundreds of employees. It has been delayed so council and the public can review it.
The controversy has again raised the question of whether it is time Columbia had a full-time mayor.
We believe Columbia would 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.
Our desire for the city to consider the strong-mayor system has little to do with Ms. Plaugh. When she was selected more than a year ago, council members said they thought she would do a solid job, and we agreed.
However, Columbia is at a crucial point in its development and needs dynamic leadership that can come from a full-time mayor. There are some key issues — from the development of CanalSide and the Three Rivers Greenway to regional cooperation to economic development — that need to be pushed through without bureaucratic delays. A strong mayor could forge relationships and make calls that a manager could not.
Five years ago, there was a quiet push made to switch Columbia’s form of government from council-manager to a strong-mayor-council structure. Certain leaders were dissatisfied with previous managers who had been more concerned with picking up garbage than taking care of regional issues and economic growth.
Certainly, the strong-mayor system is not perfect. Some critics fear it gives the mayor too much power. They fear corruption and cronyism that can plague a city that elects the wrong strong mayor. That’s possible, but a vigilant council and public can prevent it.
However, the council-manager form of government has very real drawbacks that are not so easily overcome. Not only does a relative unknown run the government, but that person is most often focused on making sure water and sewer service is efficient, not articulating a vision for the city.
Without a definitive leader, city government sometimes is slow moving. One reason negotiations between the city and SCANA over the bus system dragged on as long as they did was because there was no one dedicated to making the deal happen, no one who could speak forcefully or decisively for the city.
Beyond that, a mayor who works exclusively for the city would be active in all decisions. As it is, there are times when Mayor Coble does not vote on issues because of possible conflicts relating to his law firm.
We are not suggesting the city change its governmental structure overnight. Such a change would require adequate study, education and public dialogue.
City leaders who want Columbia to reach its potential should begin discussions about whether it is time to elect a full-time mayor. We think it is.