COLUMBIA CITY COUNCIL will make some of the most important decisions about a proposed 4,600-acre development along the Congaree River.
However, the body will have to do so without the input of all its members. Two of the council’s seven members — Frannie Heizer and Hamilton Osborne — have recused themselves from voting on or discussing the project. Ms. Heizer’s employer, the McNair Law Firm, represents Burroughs & Chapin. Mr. Osborne’s firm, Haynsworth Sinkler and Boyd, represents Columbia Venture, the Burroughs & Chapin subsidiary expected to build Green Diamond.
And it is possible a third member might have to step aside, which would leave the council woefully short-handed in reviewing this controversial project, beginning with the proposed annexation of the property. The worst part of all is that the third person would be Mayor Bob Coble. To lose the input of the mayor - the elected head of city government - would be a serious blow.
Part of the reason we are in this fix is because of the form of government we operate under in Columbia. We have a council-manager government, which is essentially a weak-mayor system. The part-time mayor, while figuratively serving as the city’s leader, cannot make a definitive decision about the direction of the city. The city is run by an unelected manager.
If Columbia elected its mayor to serve full-time, we would not be facing the potential problem we have before us. A mayor who works exclusively for the city would never have to recuse himself and would be active in the decision-making process.
As it is, Mayor Coble’s full-time job as a lawyer tends to breed possible conflicts. This time, two of his law partners are involved with Burroughs & Chapin. One of them, Ed Menzie, is on Burroughs & Chapin’s board of directors. The other, Leighton Lord, represents Burwell Manning, the former owner of the B&C property and a partner in Green Diamond. Mayor Coble has said he doesn’t believe he has a conflict because neither Mr. Menzie nor Mr. Lord is working for Columbia Venture. However, it is clear Burroughs & Chapin controls this project.
Opponents of the project have asked the mayor to recuse himself from decisions involving the project. He says he will do so if the State Ethics Commission determines that he has a conflict of interest.
Even if ethics officials decide there is no conflict under the law, there will still be those who question the mayor’s business connections. Campaign contributions made to the mayor in the first quarter of 2001 by people and companies with ties to Burroughs & Chapin only add fuel to the fire.
This isn’t the first time this kind of question has arisen on a controversial issue. During the last mayoral election, challenger Joseph Azar pointed out Mayor Coble’s conflict in dealing with Interstate Nuclear Services, now UniTech Services, which owns a nuclear laundry in the Edisto Court neighborhood. Neighbors wanted the laundry moved or closed and sought help from the city. Mayor Coble could not take an active role because a law partner represented the laundry, which is expected to move by year’s end.
Any part-time mayor who has another job would have the same potential for conflicts as Mayor Coble does. This is an instance where the council-manager form of government clearly does not serve the best interests of the city. City officials, community and business leaders and voters should take a look at Columbia’s governing structure and determine whether a change is in order.
In the meantime, Mayor Coble must carefully consider whether he should vote on Green Diamond.