Many in Columbia are waiting to see if Mayor Steve Benjamin can be effective at leading city government while also being the leading advocate for most of the nation’s mayors.
Starting in May, Benjamin assumes the presidency of the U.S. Conference of Mayors, a post he will hold for about 13 months, through June 2019.
The 47-year-old lawyer, who in 2010 became Columbia’s first African-American mayor, is a high-profile figure who has taken on controversial subjects such as the city’s multimillion-dollar financial commitment to the BullStreet development that has yet to grow beyond a nascent stage.
He also became the face of the campaign to build a minor league baseball stadium on the Bull Street property using mostly public money.
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Benjamin is widely credited with the revitalization of Main Street and the city’s core, in part because of tax incentives offered to companies that have built several student housing complexes.
But he also will spend more time away from Columbia, on a national stage, with the Conference of Mayors role.
Will voters go for that?
Benjamin said he’s up to both demanding jobs.
“When I travel, I carry the message of Columbia,” he said in an interview with The State newspaper. “When I travel, I still have my iPad wherever I rest my head. We’ve gone nonstop for seven years, and that’s not going to stop.”
It’s possible to run a municipality while on the road, said former Charleston mayor Joe Riley, who did just that 30 years ago when the internet and social media had not yet taken control of the way we communicate.
Riley told The State that when he was president of the Conference of Mayors, he would call his staff and city leaders and dictate memos and letters from wherever his Conference of Mayors duties took him.
“I found that both requirements were very manageable,” Riley said. “I would always carry a city file with me. Your constituents do not have the sense of (the mayor) being removed.”
Benjamin critics have long questioned his travel and how much city money he spends on his trips.
He is taking on the role of president one month early because the organization’s current president, Mitch Landrieu, is stepping down. Landrieu cannot, by the city’s charter, run for another term as mayor of New Orleans. That means the president-elect of the national conference, Benjamin, takes on that job ahead of the usual June timetable.
Benjamin on Thursday did what was widely expected: He filed for a third four-year term as the public face of the capital city. No one else has filed for the $75,000 part-time job. No serious challenger appears on the horizon to oppose Benjamin, who already has raised almost $213,000.
Filing for the mayor’s race, along with three other seats on City Council, ends Sept. 8. The election is Nov. 7.
Benjamin said much of his focus during a third term will be to attract more high-tech and advanced manufacturing jobs, to maintain the city’s financial health, to improve public safety and to upgrade cooperation with other local governments.
“It’s going to be a message of our city being stronger and our region being stronger together,” he said.
Benjamin said sometime soon, he wouldn’t say when, there will be announcements of technology investments that will be “seven figures and eight figures.” He would not elaborate.
Among the advanced manufacturing companies he cited as arriving in the metropolitan area during his tenure as mayor are Amazon, Nephron, Jushi and TCube along with some smaller companies on the BullStreet property.
Benjamin said he will continue to work on enlarging the city through annexation, starting by closing doughnut holes. That is the term for pockets of property that are surrounded by the city but remain unincorporated.
“It’s more important that we have an annexation policy ... that’s not just (focused on) wealthy property,” he said, citing “people who are still on septic tanks when they live a stone’s throw of the city line.”
Annexation remains a controversial topic. Members of Richland County Council have questioned the city’s intentions and called for a sit-down with City Council.
Benjamin said he’s proud of the progress in the Columbia Police Department and of city laws such as the one that bans firearms in a perimeter around the State House grounds. He said it’s unlikely that street demonstrations in Columbia would get out of hand as they did Aug. 12 in Charlottesville, Va., when white supremacists clashed with opponents, resulting in a woman’s death.
Columbia police have received pay increases, are trained in conflict avoidance techniques, and the force is equipped with body cameras, the mayor said. Though the department has 84 officer vacancies, it is a “better police force,” he said.
The fire department, however, has made headlines over internal questions about leadership at the top. Some key leadership roles were changed, but controversies continue.
There are challenges yet to be met, Benjamin acknowledged.
City Council election
Columbia voters go to the polls Nov. 7 to choose a majority of the seven-member body. So far, only incumbents have filed for the four open seats. Filing closes at noon Sept. 8.
Mayor: Steve Benjamin
At-large or citywide seat: Tameika Isaac Devine
District 1: Mostly north Columbia. Sam Davis
District 4: Mostly east Columbia. Daniel Rickenmann
Steve Benjamin’s track record
The mayor’s tenure so far has been outlined largely by the improvement to downtown and the battles that are intertwined with those victories. Here’s an overview.
▪ The gross domestic product of the metropolitan area has jumped $6.4 billion to $38.3 billion in 2015 from 2010, the year Benjamin was elected, according to the most recent available data.
▪ The budget for the Columbia Police Department has risen $2.3 million in the past four years to $37.5 million.
▪ Some 4,000 more people have moved into the Main Street area, and scores of businesses have opened to serve them as well as people who work in or visit the city.
▪ Before this year, City Council had grown so divided that major decisions often were made by one- or two-vote margins.
▪ Columbia’s commitment to more than $100 million in public money to install utilities and build parking garages on the privately developed BullStreet complex.
▪ A 2013 plan to convert city government’s council-manager system to one run by a strong mayor was defeated by a coalition of residents, joined by some on council. Many African-American voters stayed home.
▪ An internal survey of Columbia firefighters turned up a great deal of unrest over the department’s leadership, workplace fairness and pay.
▪ Clashes with many in the arts community over the way City Hall spends meal-tax revenue, often called hospitality taxes.