COLUMBIA LEADERS and voters should eagerly embrace Mayor Bob Coble’s call for a study of whether to change the city’s form of government.
As the mayor points out, it’s been more than 50 years since Columbia decided on the council-manager form of government. Columbia is a growing metropolitan city that needs strong leadership if it’s to reach its full potential. We believe that includes having a strong elected leader who is accountable and empowered to act.
As it stands, the mayor is essentially a council member who presides over meetings. He has no administrative authority. City government is run by an unelected manager who is not accountable to voters. It is the manager who hires, fires and sets employee salaries.
Mayor Coble said the city needs a mayor with more authority to deal with such issues as economic development. He’s right. Although Columbia has made laudable progress over the last decade, it also has missed out on opportunities and wasted time and resources because of its indecisiveness and failure to react quickly on some key issues.
Mayor Coble recommends a 12-member commission to lead a community study. The panel would inform the public on the issue and seek input through polling, public hearings and other means. The body would search the nation for best practices and identify as many options as possible. In the end, it would make recommendations for legislative changes, for a vote for a new form of government or for no change.
The mayor suggests several options, including keeping the council-manager form, under which the council approves the budget, ordinances and zoning, and hires a city manager.
He suggests two options that would give the mayor more power. Under the mayor-council form, an elected mayor hires and fires department heads and presents a budget. This would require a local referendum. The mayor-council-manager form, which Mr. Coble favors, would allow the mayor to hire a city manager (with advice and consent of council) to run day-to-day operations. The mayor would have veto power over council and could fire the manager. This would require a change in state law and a local referendum.
Mayor Coble also suggests considering city-county consolidation, which was attempted in the ’90s but failed. Still, it is a viable option that should be studied.
The mayor recommends that any changes take effect in 2008 or 2010. That way, the discussion will focus on the structure and not individual elected officials. Mayor Coble, who is expected to present his proposal in a speech Monday to the Columbia Rotary Club, plans to run for a fifth four-year term in 2006.
The mayor also said African-Americans, who for generations were left out of the electoral process, must be included in this effort. He proposes inviting the NAACP to be a part of the conversation.
We agree the panel and process must be inclusive to be legitimate. But we can’t imagine anyone objecting to studying this issue. Columbia is in a prime position to grow exponentially in coming years. We need the proper governing structure in place to shepherd the city through this period in a manner that benefits all.
It may be that the community reaffirms the current structure. But leaders and voters also could decide the council-manager form of government has seen its best days, and opt to elect a stronger mayor.
Let’s put the options on the table and see.