Cindi Ross Scoppe

Scoppe: Columbia doesn’t need a new team in charge of the City Council; it needs an anti-team council

Ed McDowell and Howard Duvall hug after their victories in Tuesday’s Columbia City Council runoff election.
Ed McDowell and Howard Duvall hug after their victories in Tuesday’s Columbia City Council runoff election. Gerry Melendez

AN UNCOMFORTABLE pattern has been developing on the Columbia City Council. Leona Plaugh and Moe Baddourah, later joined by Cameron Runyan, seem increasingly opposed to whatever Mayor Steve Benjamin wants.

Sometimes they’re right to object — that whole mess with the Bull Street baseball park leaps to mind — and their objections match their approach to governing. Other times, though, it feels like they are voting against Mr. Benjamin’s proposals simply because they are Mr. Benjamin’s proposals.

There’s a name for that sort of behavior, and it’s not pretty: partisan politics.

That’s the infectious disease that has paralyzed Washington and that threatens to paralyze states with two viable parties. There is no such danger at the state level in South Carolina, where the Republican Party so completely dominates; instead, the danger here is that good ideas proposed by Democrats get rejected simply because they come from Democrats, and bad ideas from Republicans get approved — particularly if the Democrats complain — simply because they come from Republicans.

We have deliberately kept municipal government in South Carolina nonpartisan, even going so far as to hold municipal elections separately from county, state and federal elections, despite the increased cost and decreased voter participation. We have done this because we understand that dividing people into teams leads to artificial disagreements, and paralysis, and more than any other, municipal governments are in the business of delivering very basic services — services that we can’t afford to have bogged down in partisanship.

2 new faces to change balance on City Council

On Tuesday, Columbia voters elected the anti-Benjamin team to the City Council. That is, the two candidates who decided to run as a team after Mr. Benjamin decided to inject himself into the elections by endorsing their opponents. Some — particularly Mr. Benjamin — call it the Cromartie team, because the convicted, but apparently still popular, former City Councilman E.W. Cromartie supported the District 2 candidate on that team, the Rev. Ed McDowell.

Two things are clear:

▪ Columbia cannot afford a return to Cromartie-style governance. Mr. Cromartie built a reputation not for visionary or even citywide leadership but for bringing the bacon home and meddling in city hiring and other operational decisions, in ways that are not only disruptive but illegal in the city-manager form of government.

Howard Duvall of all people knows this; the at-large winner spent a career defending the appropriate functioning of municipal governments. It was disturbing to hear him talking up Mr. Cromartie’s “accomplishments” as the campaign wore down. Let’s just hope that now that the campaign is ended, he will return to the level-headed professionalism that epitomized his career as director of the S.C. Municipal Association.

▪ Columbia cannot afford to go from consistent 4-3 votes on the council to consistent 3-4 votes. I don’t mean that the forces for fiscal responsibility should abandon their criticisms now that they’re in the majority; I mean that the mayor needs to listen to those concerns and modify his policies accordingly — and the critics need to be willing to meet his good-faith efforts in similar good faith. The burden of making this transition falls on all seven council members, but mostly Mr. Benjamin and Mr. Duvall.

One of most exciting things about Mr. Duvall’s campaign was that his critique of everything from ill-considered tax breaks for student apartment buildings to diversions of the city water and sewer fund to the poorly thought-out financing plan for the baseball stadium (and the baseball stadium itself) focused not on personality but on sound governmental principles. With his background, Mr. Duvall has the potential to bring the gravitas that has been missing from those who question the council’s spending and financial management decisions.

After his stunning 2-to-1 victory on Tuesday, Mr. Duvall predicted that the results would lead to “more conversations before making decisions.” We certainly need that. Too many important decisions have been made without the proper vetting, and with some council members complaining — justifiably or not — that they had been left out of the loop.

Does Runyan loss signal defeat of the pledgers? Maybe not, but let’s work on that

Columbia doesn’t need to back away from the exciting yes-we-can attitude that Mr. Benjamin has brought to the capital city. What we need is to temper that with fiscal responsibility, to make sure we have a sound plan to pay for visionary new initiatives before we commit to them. What we need is to ween ourselves off of the water and sewer money that has propped up Columbia’s budget since long before Mr. Benjamin was elected, but to do so in a measured way. What we need, now that the campaign is ended, is to stop complaining about the unreasonably high and virtually secret spending commitments that the council adopted for its build-it-and-they-will-come baseball stadium and make that project work for our city.

What we need, in fact, is to make everything the City Council does work for the city — not for competing teams.

Ms. Scoppe writes editorials and columns for The State. Reach her at cscoppe@thestate.com or (803) 771-8571 or follow her on Twitter @CindiScoppe.

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