Election Endorsements

Bolton: Opponents of strong mayor in Columbia have some legitimate concerns

WHILE SOME respected elected and community leaders strongly oppose making Columbia’s mayor an empowered executive who runs the city’s day-to-day operations, they don’t present very many legitimate arguments against the change.

Still, those arguments — although not as detrimental as they’re made out to be — deserve airing. Changing the city’s form of government is no small matter, and it’s important for voters to examine both the pros and the cons.

This column explores some of the legitimate concerns. On Friday, I’ll expose the red herrings and misleading rhetoric meant to frighten people into thinking a strong mayor would be an all-powerful czar who would ruin our capital city. And on Sunday, I’ll tell you why strong mayor, while not perfect, is the better system for Columbia.

But first things first. Here’s a look at some of the legitimate concerns people have about strong mayor:

Council members no longer would be able to pick up the phone and make demands of an appointed manager who depends on their vote to remain employed. Council members who represent districts, who have typically exercised sole authority over projects in their areas, would have to work with an empowered mayor rather than a city manager they (supposedly) review annually.

The change would transform an environment in which council members too freely — and outside of the bounds of the law — meddle in daily affairs. Even under the current structure, council members are not supposed to approach the city manager or department heads to get favors for constituents, get close acquaintances hired or get police officers posted on a given street in their district.

Charleston Mayor Joe Riley likely would disagree that the council loses any power under strong mayor. In a column Sunday in The State, he wrote that Columbia’s current council-manager system only makes it appear as if the council is strong, when really it isn’t. Whereas the council is barred by law from interfering with the city manager, a strong mayor would work side-by-side with the council and would be dependent on the council to help him succeed.

“The mayor, who unlike a manager is supposed to have his own agenda, needs the support of city council,” he wrote. “No initiative the mayor is interested in can pass city council without a majority vote. … And the engagement with city council helps the mayor make better decisions. Strong-mayor means strong council.”

One of the more legitimate concerns that people haven’t talked much about is the fact that the mayor, the elected executive, would be a voting member of City Council, the legislative body. Ideally, the mayor would not be a voting member of the council; that’s the way it is in some cities around the country. But we don’t have that option under S.C. law.

All of these concerns are legitimate points to raise as we continue this discussion leading up to the Dec. 3 vote to determine whether Columbia switches from the council-manager system to strong mayor. But here’s the important thing to keep in mind: The idea isn’t to select the perfect form of government — there is no such thing — or even the safest; it’s to choose the one that gives the city the best chance to reach its full potential.

Reach Mr. Bolton at (803) 771-8631 or wbolton@thestate.com.