Does Columbia Really Need a Strong Mayor?

By Eva Moore
Wednesday, November 13, 2013
Mayor Steve Benjamin greets a voter on Election Day. Photo by Thomas Hammond

In January of 2009, the City of Columbia was in some financial trouble.

The finance department had only recently closed the books on the 2007 accounting year. Accountants discovered the city had paid some $8 million more than Council had budgeted for health care over the previous three years. They’d paid some bills twice. Finance staff didn’t routinely balance the city’s checkbooks. The finance director was resigning under fire.

And it was time for then-City Manager Charles Austin’s annual employee evaluation.

Councilwoman Tameika Isaac Devine was in the middle of her second term on Council at the time.

“[Austin’s] evaluation was reflecting the concerns of Council about where we were financially,” Devine says. “During the evaluation process, he decided to leave.”

Austin announced his retirement Jan. 18, 2009, in the middle of the evaluation.

“Now, he did not personally have anything to do with the finances,” Devine continues. “But he was being held accountable as city manager. If that same situation happens under a strong-mayor form of government, you can’t get rid of the mayor.”

Under the current system, the mayor has the same policymaking and voting powers as the other members of City Council. Council and the mayor hire a professional city manager to oversee the city’s operations — budgeting and finance; hiring, firing and promoting employees; negotiating contracts; and all the other myriad details of running a city with 2,264 employees.

Under a strong-mayor form, the mayor would take on the administrative duties the manager currently handles, while continuing to vote as a member of Council.

Those who want a strong-mayor system in Columbia say the city government could act more quickly and decisively under that system. They also claim a mayor is more directly accountable to voters than a manager.

But Devine and other strong-mayor opponents point out voters can only remove a mayor on Election Day. South Carolina has no recall provision. Unless the mayor is convicted of a crime or becomes ineligible for office (by, say, moving out of the city), voters are stuck for four years with the person they elect to run the city. A city manager, by contrast, can be fired anytime by a simple majority of Council.

And to get anything done under a strong-mayor system, opponents say, council members will have to stay on the good side of the mayor.

In the coming weeks, Devine will be one of a handful of public figures vocally opposing a change in the form of Columbia’s government. 

The voices on the other side, pushing for a strong mayor, will be a bit louder, as their efforts appear well funded, with a TV ad already airing. They’ll be saying Devine and her fellow council members just don’t want to give up power — which they likely would under a strong-mayor system.

For the last decade or two, across the Capital City, reformers and business people have been gunning for this change in Columbia’s government. The State newspaper has been particularly insistent, with an ever-thickening stream of editorials calling for a strong-mayor system. The Greater Columbia Chamber of Commerce has long wanted the change. Mayor Steve Benjamin is a longtime supporter of the idea, too, even before he became mayor.

But several times over the last few years, a majority of City Council has voted not to put the strong mayor question to voters, saying the issue was being pushed by powerful interests like the Chamber, not by voters.

So earlier this year, after years of grappling with Council, and with the backing of the Chamber, a group of proponents hired a Georgia firm to gather signatures for a petition drive to put the question on the ballot.

It worked. On Dec. 3, Columbia residents will decide whether to keep the city’s current council-manager form or switch to a new one: the mayor-council, or strong-mayor system. 

Voters are faced with more than a simple decision of political philosophy.

First, there’s a troubling lack of transparency from both sides. The group formed to push the issue won’t say how much money it’s raised or from whom — and under state law, it doesn’t have to.  A new group opposing the change won’t reveal its funders, either, out of fear they’ll take flak for opposing the powerful Chamber and mayor.

Second, it’s not always clear that the proposed solution matches the perceived problem. Those who want a change say a strong mayor could speed up decision-making, making the city more business-friendly. But not everyone agrees that what’s good for business is always good for the rest of us.

What’s more, the choice of form will likely be tangled up in how voters feel about Steve Benjamin, the city’s current mayor, who would serve as mayor under the new system if voters say yes to the change.

This isn’t an advocacy piece — Free Times is not telling you how to vote Dec. 3. Heck, our own columnist Kevin Fisher has repeatedly advocated for the strong-mayor system. But we think Columbians need a fuller airing of the pros and cons of a strong mayor than they’re likely to get when the pro-change forces are so well funded and the daily newspaper’s editorial board is firmly on the side of a new form of government.

Who Has What Kind, and How’s It Work?

When it comes to forms of government, you can basically pick your evidence based on which form you favor. Cities function — and fail — under both forms.

Some of South Carolina’s large, successful cities have a strong mayor, most notably Charleston and North Charleston. But Greenville and Spartanburg have council-manager governments like Columbia. Across the border, Charlotte, too, has a weak-mayor form.

But strong mayors are more common. Of the 270 cities and towns in South Carolina, 145 have a mayor-council (strong mayor) form; 93 have a council-only form, and 32 have a council-manager form.

Nationwide, the largest, most famous cities tend to have strong mayors: New York City; Chicago; Detroit; Los Angeles. About two-thirds of cities with more than half a million residents have a strong mayor, according to 2013 figures from the International City/County Management Association.

But among slightly smaller cities, the council-manager/weak-mayor form dominates. Among cities Columbia’s size, with 100,000 to 249,000 people (Columbia has 130,000), 69 percent have a weak -mayor form. 

In other words, there’s no set formula for which form works for a given city. 

When it comes to actual data about which form of government works better, there’s not much. But a 2011 IBM white paper that took a look at the spending and employment practices of 100 of the largest American cities found advantages to the weak-mayor system. Fifty-four percent of the cities in the sample had strong mayors.

“Cities with city manager forms of government are nearly 10 percent more efficient than cities with strong-mayor forms of government,” the report found. “This finding appears to validate the assumption underlying city manager forms of government, notably that investing executive authority in professional management shielded from direct political interference should yield more efficiently managed cities.”

Among cities that have switched forms of government, there’s often a bit of a turbulent settling-in period.

In San Diego last week, the city attorney called for an overhaul of the city charter after a summer of scandal. The city switched to a strong-mayor form of government in 2004. But, the Union-Tribune reported, “The city quickly learned that there is no provision in the charter to remove a mayor — even when a unanimous City Council and a majority of residents wanted Bob Filner to step down after a cascading series of sexual harassment allegations and other scandals.”

Colorado Springs, meanwhile, is two years in to a strong-mayor system, and it’s been a contentious ride. The council and the mayor have battled over which of them is the city attorney’s client, with the council pushing to hire its own separate attorney.

“Council members have said the city attorney opinions often advocate for the mayor’s position and it takes weeks to get a response from the city attorney’s office,” the Gazette reports. They fought over who has budgetary authority. They fought over whether the mayor should have his own personal $1.5 million contingency fund so he doesn’t have to go back to the council for every expenditure.

But businesspeople in the Springs like the change. One told the Gazette, “There hasn’t been somebody who has owned it and said, ‘Listen, we’re going to make this a priority.’ That’s probably the singular difference. [The Colorado Springs strong mayor] is making that his focus.”

It’s probably no surprise, then, that Colorado Springs’ switch to a new form of government was heavily funded by developers.

Who’s funding the push for change here? We don’t know.

mayor-council form of government (proposed)

council-manager form of government (current)

Murky Backers

Columbia Citizens for Better Government was formed to promote a change to a strong mayor system. Its members are well known Columbia figures, for the most part: former attorney general Henry McMaster; former governor Jim Hodges. The group is also working closely with Lee Bussell, outgoing president of the Greater Columbia Chamber of Commerce.

But the group’s financial backers aren’t so public.

Adam Fogle of Richard Quinn & Associates, a political strategy firm hired by the group to push for the strong-mayor form, won’t reveal how much money the committee has raised or spent. Nor will he reveal who’s donated to the group.

“It’s privately funded,” says Fogle, who also worked for Benjamin’s re-election campaign. “Our donors have asked to remain anonymous, and we’re honoring their request.”

Political candidates have to report all campaign donations and expenditures. But under South Carolina’s current campaign finance laws, Columbia Citizens for Better Government doesn’t have to reveal that information. Ever since a judge threw out the definition of a committee in state election law, no committee has had to report its donors or the size of its war chest.

Unless the General Assembly fixes the law, that won’t change, says Cathy Hazelwood, attorney for the State Ethics Commission. 

Hazelwood adds that she’s surprised that a group advocating for a change in government doesn’t want to publicly disclose the information.

“I could see the ones against it thumbing their noses,” she says. “The groups for it should be about good government, and this doesn’t seem like good government.”

Meanwhile, the opposition is much less organized — and likely less well funded. They’re mostly raising money for yard signs.

“We imagine that we pale in comparison to their might and strength,” says Kit Smith, a former Richland County Council member, who helped found the group Communities United for a Great Columbia [online copy corrected], which just formally came together last week. “We are all volunteers who sit around the kitchen table and go ‘Oh my god, what should we do?’”

But they won’t reveal their donors, either.

“I don’t like the rule that you don’t have to disclose, but in this case I think it’s important,” Smith says. “This is a government town, and almost everyone does business with the city or with the Chamber of Commerce. They are reluctant to stand up to those folks for fear of lack of cooperation in the future.”

A Change to What End?

Those who want a strong mayor say it’ll let city government move faster, without so much Council dithering.

When businesspeople come to Columbia, they want to talk to the mayor, and they want that mayor empowered to make decisions, the argument goes.

“Currently, the mayor of Columbia has limited administrative powers and can only be influential through advocacy,” the Chamber wrote in a statement supporting the change. “As a result, key projects and initiatives often get delayed and important decisions are deferred, creating frustration within the Columbia business community.”

The Bull Street deal is the most prominent example cited by the Chamber. The city’s negotiations with Greenville developer Bob Hughes reportedly dragged on for months, and were in danger of falling through — until July, when the city inked a deal for Hughes to develop the 181-acre tract in the heart of the city.

Benjamin says that would have been different if he’d been a strong mayor.

“The ability, first of all, to speak and act with not just apparent authority but clear executive authority as the CEO of the city changes everything from negotiation and deliberation every step of the way,” Benjamin told Free Times last month. “The council, as it would under even a mayor-council form, would still have ultimate say and sign-off authority, but the ability to make some decisions and bring those decisions back to the council and have a chance to review them probably would have sped the process up significantly.”

But Benjamin drew criticism from fellow council members and the public — and The State newspaper — for ramming through the final deal over a holiday week, and possibly for ceding too much power to Hughes. Council placed necessary checks on the process, they say.

Meanwhile, those who favor the current system say a strong-mayor system would mean a more political, less professional city government.

Howard Duvall, former executive director of the Municipal Association of South Carolina, has been one of the loudest voices opposing a change.

“Everyone’s going to have to get on the good side of the mayor to get things done,” Duvall said at a September forum. “If the mayor doesn’t want the pothole fixed on MacGregor Drive, it’s not getting fixed.”

Certainly, Columbia isn’t going to turn into 1930s-era Chicago or Kansas City overnight if voters approve a strong mayor system. There are hundreds of strong-mayor cities without corrupt political machines. But the fear is that politics will slowly creep into places where they don’t belong: the hiring of the public works director; the garbage pickup schedule.

The International City/County Management Association — which, to be sure, has a vested interest in the continued existence of city managers — supports the council-manager form of government, saying it’s more democratic.

“Council-manager government encourages neighborhood input into the political process, diffuses the power of special interests, and eliminates partisan politics from municipal hiring, firing, and contracting decisions,” the association wrote in 2009.

“Under council-manager government, qualifications and performance — and not skillful navigation of the political election process — are the criteria the elected body uses to select a professional manager. The professional manager, in turn, uses his or her education, experience, and training to select department heads and other key managers to oversee the efficient delivery of services. In this way, council-manager government maintains critical checks and balances to ensure accountability at city hall.”

Here in South Carolina, people often point to Charleston’s success — it’s one of the country’s top tourist destinations — as an argument for the strong-mayor form.

But others argue Charleston isn’t a good model.

Columbia City Councilman Sam Davis says Charleston’s success hasn’t come equally to all its citizens.

“When you go to Charleston, don’t go to the Battery and don’t go to the historic districts,” he says. “You’ve got to go through some neighborhoods.”

Those neighborhoods, he frequently points out, have suffered. In some areas, long-term residents, often black, have been pushed out by gentrification. And other neighborhoods are crumbling.
For similar reasons, Kevin Gray, a longtime activist and author, calls a strong-mayor system “a contraction of democracy.”

“To vest all the power of our government into one person, and to eliminate the separation of politics and policy — the citizens will have to compete with the moneyed interests for the mayor’s ear,” Gray said at a September forum.

“Government is not like a business,” he said. “Business is a constituency of government. … We’re all stuck in this client-customer [model] instead of a citizen focus. I think this is a slippery slope and dangerous slope to be sliding down.”

A Question of Personality

Mayor Steve Benjamin has a full head of steam, having just been elected to his second term as Columbia’s mayor. During the last three and a half years, he’s been able to accomplish quite a bit under the weak-mayor system.

And Benjamin has executive experience, having run the state Department of Probation, Pardon and Parole under Gov. Jim Hodges — managing budgets, hiring and firing employees. But a future mayor might not have similar experience, strong mayor opponents point out.

And, of course, there’s the matter of power.

Strong mayor proponents often point to something Tameika Isaac Devine said in 2009 on why she wasn’t running for mayor: “Really, all I would gain was the title of mayor and the responsibility to go to a lot more things than I do now… the job I have is the same as the job of mayor.”

That’s been taken somewhat out of context, she claims: What she meant is that she can attain her goals for the city and serve her constituents as a council member; she doesn’t need to be the mayor.

But she also assents that under a strong-mayor system, it would be harder for her to get things done.

“I understand the argument that the powers of Council do not change — the argument is our role does not change,” she says. “Practically, I believe it does. Right now, if I have a constituent that has an issue, I call the city manager. If we change the form of government, my recourse would be to call the mayor’s office.”

“It may still get done; I’m not saying it wouldn’t,” Devine says. “I will be honest that right now sometimes I have difficulty getting people in the mayor’s office.”

Yet to The State’s Warren Bolton, a strong mayor would actually make city government less political — and having council members give up some power is a good thing.

“Such a change would make it much more difficult for council members to meddle in daily affairs — whether it’s to get a favor for a constituent, get a favored person hired in a given department or insist that more police officers be posted on a street in their district,” Bolton wrote recently. “That’s the way it should be.”

Nowhere are these arguments clearer than in the city’s current concerns over public safety.

Recently, a key argument coming from strong-mayor supporters is that the city would be safer with the mayor directly hiring a police chief. Under the current structure, the chief reports to an assistant city manager, who reports to the city manager.

“[M]any of the current problems related to public safety could be dealt with swiftly and efficiently if our mayor had the authority to act,” Councilman Cameron Runyan wrote recently. “It’s time to let voters decide if they want to give him that authority and responsibility by switching to a strong mayor system.”

Some strong mayor supporters have tried to paint the current city manager, Teresa Wilson, as a despot, visiting crime scenes and keeping the chief from doing his job. But Wilson could be fired tomorrow with four votes of Council, if they wanted to get rid of her.

And to opponents, it’s not clear how having an elected mayor would directly address the city’s safety problems. They feel politics are likelier to intrude than they are under the current system.
“The real question I hope to get through to people,” says Tameika Isaac Devine, is “What do you believe will be changed?”

Then, she says, “You work on correcting those things in policy. You don’t change the form of government.”

Kit Smith echoes that.

“If you have a flat tire, you don’t buy a new car,” Smith says. “You fix it.”

Ultimately, it’s up to voters to decide whether Columbia’s government has a flat tire or a broken engine. 

If the Strong Mayor Vote Succeeds

Columbia is already getting a full-time, fully paid mayor: No matter what happens Dec. 3, Council has voted to raise the mayor’s salary from its current $17,500 a year to $75,000. If the strong mayor vote succeeds, it’ll be raised to $160,000, consistent with the salaries of many city managers.

If Columbia voters approve a change in government on Dec. 3, they won’t wake up the next day with a strong mayor. Steve Benjamin would become the city’s first strong mayor July 1, 2014; there would be no new election. And between now and then, the city would be very busy.

Although state law lays out the broad outlines of a strong mayor’s powers, Council would have to fill in the picture by writing policies. The city manager and assistant city managers’ jobs would go away effective July 1; Council would have to decide whether to hire an administrator who would report to the mayor.

The city attorney also points out that thousands of city documents and manuals will have to be changed to identify the mayor rather than city manager as the person responsible for approving hiring decisions, signing contracts, etc.

Powers Under Two Forms of Government

Source: Municipal Association of South Carolina

Mayor-Council Form (Strong Mayor)

• Presides over meetings.
• Calls special meetings.
• Designates temporary judge.
• Acts as chief administrative officer.
• Appoints and removes employees subject to personnel rules adopted by council.
• Supervises departments.
• Acts and votes as member of council.
• Ensures faithful execution of laws.
• Prepares and submits budget and capital program to council.
• Makes annual financial report to public and council.
• Reports to council on operations of departments.

• Has all powers not otherwise provided by law.
• Establishes departments and prescribes functions.
• May employ administrator to assist mayor.
• Investigates departments.
• Appoints clerk, attorney and judge.
• Elects mayor pro tempore.
• Adopts a balanced budget.

• May be appointed by council to assist mayor.
• Has only authority delegated by the council.

Council-Manager Form (Current Form)

• Presides over meetings (by tradition)
• Calls special meetings
• Designates temporary judge.
• Acts and votes as member of council.
• Mayor has no administrative powers.
• Mayor has no additional statutory authority beyond other council members

• Has all legislative and policy powers.
• Employs manager, attorney and judge.
• Elects mayor pro tempore.
• Establishes departments and functions.
• Adopts a balanced budget.
• Authorizes bond issues; investigates departments, adopts plats and official map; provides for annual audit; exercises general police powers; appoints boards.
• Appoints temporary manager.
• May require surety bonds.

• Is chief executive and head of administrative branch. 
• Appoints, sets salaries and removes employees at will, including clerk.
• Prepares and administers annual budget.
• Makes financial reports.
• Advises council on departments and appointments.
• Designates manager during temporary absence.

A Brief History of Columbia’s Forms of Government

Columbia’s tried out several forms of government through the years. Early on, the city was run by 15 elected aldermen, one from each ward of the city. In 1910, voters threw out that system and replaced it with a commission form: a mayor and four at-large councilmen, each of whom oversaw different city departments — one council member was over the police department, city physician and city veterinarian, for example, while another oversaw “fire, law, plumbing, and tree and city beautification.”

In the late 1940s, though, momentum began to grow for hiring a manager. The nearby city of Sumter had pioneered the idea in 1913, and cities across the country were adopting it. The system cut down on corruption by separating administration from politics, they found, and made cities run more efficiently. The Columbia chapter of the League of Women Voters, formed just a year earlier, supported the change in government. So did the Chamber of Commerce.

City Council liked the idea, too. Council voted unanimously to put the referendum before voters. And in 1949, voters approved changing to a city manager-run government 1,222 to 650. The first Columbia city manager, a former manager of University City, Missouri, was hired in 1950.

Amusingly, The State newspaper lobbied as hard for the city manager form as it currently is for the strong mayor form. From 1947 to 1948 it ran a series of editorials by local attorney Hunter Gibbes advocating professional management of the city and explaining the change, and its editorial board heartily endorsed hiring a manager.

The opposition, meanwhile, came mostly from the Wade Hampton chapter of the Young Democrats, and appears to have risen mostly from anger at the idea of the city being managed by an outsider. Four years after the system was adopted, opponents succeeded in bringing it to a vote again, but voters supported keeping the city-manager system by a 3-to-1 margin.

Voters have tweaked the structure of city government a few more times since then.

Most notably, in 1981, Columbia adopted its current 4-2-1 system, with four council members elected from geographic districts of the city (two of them majority black), two at-large members, and an at-large mayor. 

Thanks to the Richland Library’s Local History Room for help with research.

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