Stop the insanity, change city's form of government

IN SUSPENDING its search for a permanent city manager and extending interim administrator Steve Gantt's tenure, Columbia City Council has created a window in which the city can - and should - work toward changing its form of government.

It's been 60 years or so since Columbia decided on the council-manager form of government. If this growing metropolitan city is to thrive, it needs a strong elected leader who is accountable and empowered. The current council-manager structure has proven to be slow and plodding, taking too long to make important decisions; hasn't lent itself to the development of a coherent, long-term vision for the city; and has long lacked in accountability.

With Mayor Bob Coble on the way out and Mr. Gantt having made it clear he's willing to stay on for a year but doesn't want the job permanently, now is a good time to make a change.

Let's be honest. The struggles that Columbia has been enduring are largely due to the fact that city government is broken. A commission that studied the city's governing structure not only concluded that, but also said the meddlesome council hinders the city's effectiveness. Unfortunately, the commission, which was stacked with people solidly against change from the outset, made no recommendation.

But responsible leaders should act. We would prefer that City Council place a question on the ballot allowing voters to decide whether to adopt a mayor-council - strong mayor - form of government. But some on the council fear they would lose power. This is the same council that failed to provide necessary oversight, leadership and accountability as the city plunged into financial deficits. If the council won't act, civic, community and business leaders, some of whom have expressed interest in strong mayor in the past, should take the lead and seek to force a referendum by petition.

Critics argue that turning to an empowered mayor would usher in an era of corruption and doom.

But it was under the council-manager form of government that the city's Police Department became woefully underfunded and undermanned and struggled to rebound from a testing scandal as well as overall low morale; a new "public safety" director had to be hired to oversee the police and fire chiefs.

It was under the council-manager system that the city grew its work force to the point that it had more employees than it could afford to pay.

It was under the current system that the finance department essentially stopped doing its job - books weren't closed on time, some bills were paid at least twice, employees were overpaid, and millions more than budgeted was unknowingly spent for health-insurance premiums.

It was under the council-manager structure that the council, knowing it wasn't getting accurate financial statements, continued to build budgets and spend money year after year without a clue as to how much the city had taken in or spent the prior year.

To this day, no one really has taken responsibility for the city's failures. Of course, in the council-manager form of government, no one has to. The city manager, the mayor, the council members - all can claim they're not responsible and point fingers elsewhere.

But an empowered executive who must be responsive to voters couldn't pass the buck. He would know that no matter what happens - for better or worse - the buck stops with him. He would have to take responsibility and make corrections expeditiously - or face being ousted in the next election.

If Columbia operated under a strong mayor system, the fallacy that many voters have long believed will become true: that when they elect a mayor, they're choosing the person who runs city government.

As it stands, the elected mayor is little more than a council member who presides over meetings, while city government is run by a manager who is not accountable to voters. That unelected manager is often, and wrongly, called on to make political decisions that only get him into trouble - with citizens and his seven bosses on council.

Allowing the dysfunctional council-manager system to persist is insane.