Published Sept. 4, 2005
Columbia’s mayor is as weak as they come. We’re not bad-mouthing Bob Coble. We’re referring to the weak position any mayor under the council-manager system inherits. If voters who choose Columbia’s mayor think they’re electing a leader empowered to enact change, they’re sadly mistaken.
Columbia’s form of government is designed to limit the mayor’s power to act as an executive.
Over the years, many have wondered why Columbia was slow to take off. Some of it was timing and resources. But a lot of it was the city’s form of government. The council-manager form is a slow-plodding structure under which it’s hard to tell who is in charge. An unelected — often little-known — manager does the hiring and firing, proposes a budget and controls day-to-day operations. If the ball is dropped, the mayor—- a glorified council member who cuts ribbons — can plead a lack of power. So can the city manager. Council members, four of whom are elected from districts, can also dodge accountability under this system.
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From Vista development to streetscaping downtown and in Five Points to a planned development at the old CCI property to a large-scale project at Bull Street, Columbia is experiencing unprecedented growth. The city has added a convention center and is awaiting the construction of an accompanying hotel. New homes are being built to replace the old Saxon Homes public housing community, and a new wellness center is being built to replace the old Drew Park. A mixed-use development will be built at the old Hendley Homes site along Rosewood Drive. The University of South Carolina is planning a new baseball stadium. Better still, USC plans a research campus that could make for dramatic change in the city’s fate.
With so much afoot — and so much untapped potential — it’s essential for Columbia to have the right governing structure to manage this growth.
But there is no one empowered to speak and act with authority. There is no stated vision, and no clear way to translate any vision into reality. The result is indecision and missed opportunities that hinder progress.
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.
There have been multiple attempts over the years to change the form of governance, whether through city-county consolidation or the election of a strong mayor.
Consolidation has some intriguing elements well worth considering, but it faces tremendous political and legal hurdles. Considering that, it’s essential that Columbia’s governmental structure provide the best possible opportunity to promote progress.
For months, a commission has been studying the city’s government. The group is racially diverse and balanced. It includes business people and community and civic leaders. Some favor a change; others do not.
Voters are interested in change. A poll by Richard Quinn & Associates found 60 percent of active city voters favor a strong elected mayor.
The study commission’s job has been to review all possibilities, hold community discussions and make a recommendation to the council. One option is to keep the council-manager form. At least two others would give the mayor more power: Under the strong-mayor form, an elected mayor hires and fires department heads and presents a budget. This would have to be approved in a local referendum. The mayor-council-manager form would allow the mayor to hire a city manager, with advice and consent of council; the mayor would have veto power and could fire the manager. This would require a change in state law and a referendum. The commission is also to consider consolidation.
The commission is to make a recommendation in October. We commend those who have graciously served on the commission. They have the opportunity to make a tremendous difference in the life of the city. We hope they look beyond the desires of particular constituencies they may represent, and consider the good of the whole community. If Columbia continues to be reactive instead of proactive, entrenched instead of visionary, it will continue to be a nice place to live that few will want to visit or move their business to.
A strong mayor would be empowered to change that. In addition to leading the charge on economic development, a strong mayor could lift up all the city’s neighborhoods, promote diversity, run day-to-day operations and hire capable staff. Above all, he or she could set out a vision of a better city, and lead in making it a reality.