Published Sept. 20, 2003
WE HAD HOPED Columbians would be far along by now in a discussion about changing the city’s form of government from council-manager to strong mayor.
After all, there are sufficient reasons to consider doing so, the least of which are the troublesome performances of the past two city managers. Under the current structure, it is hard to tell who is in charge - the council, the mayor or the city manager.
If Columbia had a full-time mayor, it would be clear who is accountable. The mayor, elected by the people, would be the city’s chief executive, and would hire and fire employees, supervise departments and submit the budget to the council. The mayor also would be expected to outline a vision for the city and coordinate government functions in support of that vision.
Under the council-manager form of government, a relative unknown who is not directly accountable to the people runs the city. Without a definitive leader, city government often moves slowly. Important negotiations drag on and even stall. A strong mayor would be able to make decisions and act on them.
When former manager Leona Plaugh was ousted, we thought it was a good time for the city to begin a dialogue about changing the form of government. The City Council thought otherwise.
After appointing Charles Austin, an able leader, as interim manager, the council quickly launched a search for a new manager. No doubt, Mr. Austin’s dependable leadership has helped foster continued support for the council-manager form of government.
Before being named interim city manager, Mr. Austin was an assistant city manager who was in charge of the police, fire and several other departments. He was the city’s acting police chief at the time he was appointed interim. He is very well-known and respected throughout the city and has boosted employee morale and earned the confidence of council members.
Although he is a strong contender for the job, the council has not given him a free pass, rightly saying it owes it to the public to consider other talented candidates. Ms. Plaugh was given the job without having to prove herself through a competitive process.
The council commissioned a search that members said has yielded a strong field of three finalists, Mr. Austin being one of them. The other two are Wayne Bowers, the city manager of Gainesville, Fla., and Kathy Rice, the former city manager of Waco, Texas.
This is a very important decision the council is about to make. The city has arranged for the public to meet the candidates from 2 until 5 p.m. Sunday at the Clarion Town House at 1615 Gervais St. Columbia residents and business people should make every effort to go meet the candidates and ask questions.
In the end, of course, the council will make the decision about who is best to run the city. This is a crucial time in the city’s life as it continues to work on a convention center and hotel, regional cooperation and economic development issues and the redevelopment of the riverfront. The next city manager must be more than a caretaker. He or she must be capable of taking Columbia to the next level.
However, no matter how good a manager the council chooses, the fact remains that the council-manager form of government has significant drawbacks. At some point, city leaders and voters must take a sincere look at Columbia’s governing structure and determine whether it is sufficient to help the city reach its potential.