Editorial: Columbians must unite after strong-mayor vote

COLUMBIA voters spoke unequivocally Tuesday in rejecting the strong-mayor form of government, 57 percent to 43 percent.

Although we believe that our capital city’s best chance at reaching its full potential lies with an empowered mayor who has the authority to act rather than an unelected manager who reacts to the wishes of seven elected bosses, ultimately that is a decision for the voters to make. And they have made it.

So, council-manager it is.

But now what? Frankly, for us it always has been about the “now what?”

Over the years, too much evidence suggested the anti-accountability council-manager system wasn’t serving Columbia well. Our sustained advocacy for strong mayor over the past decade and a half hasn’t been an attempt to effect change simply for the sake of change or merely to score a victory.

Our desire — and we believe it is shared by people of good will on both sides of this issue — is to see Columbia placed in the best position not only to improve services, quality of life and government functions for current citizens and businesses but to transform itself into a preferred destination for new residents and new businesses. Any city that’s not active and growing is dead or dying.

Now that voters have spoken, it is imperative that Columbians unite around the common goal of helping Columbia thrive. That begins with ending the revolving door at the police chief’s office, stabilizing the department and allowing its next leader to do just that — lead. It begins with the City Council, whose members have crossed the line routinely by meddling in day-to-day operations of government, respecting the law that prohibits such interference. It begins with the mayor putting a renewed focus on consensus-building even as he continues his understandably aggressive push to make Columbia a premier city.

And it begins with the diverse groups and individuals who set aside differences to work either for or against strong mayor now agreeing to work with one another in Columbia’s best interest. It’s often not easy to get people on opposite sides of an issue to work together even under the best of circumstances. But after such a tough debate, the feat could be even more difficult: Things no doubt were said and done that frayed nerves and strained relationships.

Undoubtedly, while there is jubilation on the part of some who fought to defeat strong mayor, there is disappointment on the part of many who sought change. Those are natural reactions after an emotional, sometimes testy, campaign and vote. And give those who prefer the status quo credit: They came together quickly, built a grassroots campaign and outworked strong-mayor proponents to win the day.

But the respected and dedicated leaders on both sides understand that a divided Columbia will struggle, whereas a united one has an opportunity to do great things. Columbians the city over — from City Council members to business, civic and neighborhood leaders to everyday citizens and taxpayers — must pull together, get engaged in their government and do their part to make this city better.

So, does this mean this editorial board will never revisit strong mayor? Absolutely not. Nothing about this vote changes our long-held position that empowering an elected executive — whether it’s the mayor of Columbia or the governor of South Carolina — is the most accountable way to run government. But we do respect voters’ decision, which, according to state law, must stand for at least four years.

The focus now should be on ensuring that those who lead Columbia do their level best to move this city from good to great.