Strong-mayor debate focuses on accountability

Panel at the strong mayor forum on Sept. 25. Photo by Kelly Petty.

Panel at the strong-mayor forum on Sept. 25. (photo by Kelly Petty)

With about two months left until the strong-mayor special election, the question remains for most Columbia voters: Who’s the boss?

Accountability appeared to be the main issue of the debate over whether the city should return to a “strong” mayor-council form of government.

At a debate hosted by the Columbia Community Relations Council last week, proponents and opponents ginned up arguments on a strong-mayor form of government based around the idea of whether a mayor would have the knowledge and skills to effectively manage city affairs.

The fear among opponents of the strong-mayor system is that a mayor would not be held accountable to anyone and would force council members and constituents to appease the mayor in order to get things done.

“Do we want professional management or do we want political management that can be twisted depending on who’s talking to them right now?” former Richland County council member Kit Smith said.

Howard Duvall, former executive director at the Municipal Association of SC, argued that the council-manager form of government, which is currently in place, is the best form of government. He said that it permits a professional manager who is not only trained with the ability to understand the structure and operation of the government, but also can remain partial to run the city.

“Keep the political side on the elected side and the management side under professional managers,” he said.

Switching to the strong-mayor-council form of government will do away with the city manager and give administrative power to the mayor, said Duvall. The mayor still would maintain the ability to vote and make legislative decisions.

But proponents of strong mayor argued that it’s not about politics, but rather about business being able to do business in the city effectively.

For a small business to obtain a permit to operate in Richland it can take 23 days, whereas in Lexington County it can take two to three days, said Lee Bussell, Greater Columbia Chamber of Commerce.

Bussell said that Columbia’s process to establish a business causes “significant more bureaucracy, more time and more energy than most of the cities in the South have been able to do it.”

“I believe we will cut through red tape and bureaucracy,” Bussell said.

He also said that another barrier to attracting business development to the city is that the council-manager form of government creates a “ceremonial mayor” incapable of executing business negotiations effectively since the council ultimately makes the last decision.

Community activist Kevin Gray challenged Bussell’s claims, noting what he sees as unfair distribution of resources in certain parts of the city.

“They want to avoid the responsibility of the entire community and cater to one community,” Gray said. “We have this attitude where if business is not welcome in community, then the community goes away.

We all create jobs in this community. We can’t alone do it without having investment from outside coming in.”

Gray said that gentrification and redevelopment is being shifted to downtown and the area around the University of South Carolina campus, and away from critical areas such as Eau Clair and Two Notch road that he said desperately need infrastructure development.

He said that a strong mayor would continue to neglect those communities.

“The black community is always the loser,” Gray said.

Some in attendance still grappled with the prospect of an unsavory mayor taking office and wielding the most power after Duvall explained that a strong mayor would have the ability to hire and fire the city’s more than 2,000 employees as well as set salaries and shift allocation funds between or within city departments.

Former South Carolina Attorney General Henry McMaster said that the voters have to judge the character of the elected mayor.

“If you elect somebody’s who’s corrupt, then don’t vote for someone’s corrupt,” he said. “They’re running for office because they want to help.”

Community activist Durham Carter said at the end of the day, it’s about what the voters want. When Carter was one of many leaders who fought for single-member districts in the city in the 1960s, he said that neighborhoods could take a better look at what was at stake in their communities. He thinks the same could be done now.

“The people of Columbia have made a historic response in regards to the issue of city form of government,” he said. “They want to vote and vote now on the city form of government. We should honor people’s wishes. That’s good business.”

Categories: Richland County