Another reason Columbia needs strong mayor

WHY GO TO THE expense and trouble of running for mayor of Columbia when you can serve on City Council and have as much power - and get as much done?

That question helped Councilwoman Tameika Isaac Devine's decide not to run. Mrs. Devine said giving up her at-large seat to serve as mayor - a weak position that's nothing more than a glorified council seat in Columbia's council-manager system - isn't worth it.

"Really all I would gain was the title of mayor and the responsibility to go to a lot more things than I do now," said Mrs. Devine, who is up for re-election in 2010. "As far as actually doing the job in representing my constituency, the job I have is the same as the job of mayor."

Can there be any more powerful illustration of the need to change the city's form of government not only so the mayor's position attracts better and stronger candidates, but also so there is an identified leader empowered to move the city forward?

Mrs. Devine isn't belittling the mayor's job; she's just speaking the truth. Council members - even those elected by district - hold the same power as the mayor. So power and accountability are diffused seven ways. No one is ultimately in charge.

The mayor and council hire and fire the unelected, little-known city manager who runs the day-to-day operations of the city. When things go awry, the city manager, mayor and council members all can point fingers elsewhere. That wouldn't happen under a strong mayor. We'd know where the buck stops.

Taxpayers have yet to be told who's to blame and exactly what happened to cause the city's financial meltdown. With a strong-mayor system, the mayor would have to answer for the breakdown; there would be no guessing.

Under council-manager, the city often gets too bogged down to act on key issues and initiatives. There is no clear vision, no one empowered to speak and act with authority. A strong mayor could take decisive action and organize governmental functions so they support a focused vision.

Also, a mayor who works exclusively for the city would be devoted to the city, not outside interests. Currently, there are times when the mayor must remove himself from discussions about crucial issues because of business relationships. It has happened under Mayor Bob Coble, and any other mayor who has another job would have the same potential for conflicts. One 2010 mayoral candidate - Steve Benjamin, who is on the board of Advance America, the nation's largest payday lender - already has said if he wins he'd likely recuse himself from any payday lending matters.

Many Columbia voters think that when they cast a vote for mayor, they're electing the person who will run the city and whom they can hold accountable. But the mayor is little more than a figurehead who convenes council meetings and represents the city at groundbreakings and ribbon-cuttings.

Where's the beef? There is none; just ask Councilwoman Devine, she'll tell you. Frankly, few capable candidates are willing to disrupt their lives to become a weak mayor who isn't empowered to govern. It's time to make a change.