Editorial: Columbia cries out for empowered leader, not an unaccountable manager

WHILE SOME reasonable, well-meaning people defend Columbia’s current form of government and extol the virtues of a professional manager, the past decade of dysfunction that has gripped our capital city demands change.

Although Columbia has made some progress, it has been limited and was achieved in spite of the anti-accountability, indecisive council-manager system. Meanwhile, residents’ trust in the city’s ability to keep them safe, manage public finances and provide accountable leadership has been shaken severely. No city leader has ever truly taken responsibility for the broken faith, but much of the problem can be traced to the council-manager system that allows many to share power but requires no one to lead or be held accountable.

Nothing is more difficult to grasp than the travails of the Police Department. The department that many — from Five Points merchants to North Columbia residents — are depending on to protect them from a rising tide of gang activity and violence has endured a rash of scandals and chief departures. The city manager supervises the chief, but council members routinely meddle in department affairs, making the chief’s job difficult.

The finances are much improved, but four years ago the city was struggling to recover from two consecutive years of general-fund deficits. It had paid some bills at least twice, gone years drafting budgets and spending money without knowing what it had taken in and for years received late, unreliable financial statements. The city manager didn’t hold his finance employees accountable, and City Council didn’t hold the city manager accountable, even though members knew they weren’t getting accurate information.

In short, the dysfunction that invaded the police and finance departments mirrors the dysfunctional, unaccountable council-manager system.

Strong-mayor opponents insist the city needs a trained, experienced professional to manage the government. But even the most experienced managers can be rendered ineffective trying to please seven elected bosses. And City Council hasn’t always hired the trained, experienced administrator some of them now declare so critical. Charles Austin didn’t meet those standards. And current city manager Teresa Wilson, who is searching for a new police chief, has only a limited amount of experience.

Columbia doesn’t need to be managed. It needs to be led. It needs authoritative, accountable, visionary leadership. On Dec. 3, voters should empower the mayor and hold him accountable for hiring professionals to keep Columbia safe, financially stable and progressive.

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