Update: Columbia will likely vote Dec. 3 instead on the strong mayor question.
Columbia voters will probably get to choose Nov. 5 whether to change the city’s form of government to a so-called strong mayor form.
On Wednesday, Sept. 18 at 6 p.m., Columbia City Council will take a second and final vote to place a referendum on the ballot regarding the city’s form of government.
The initial vote, held at a special meeting Sept. 11, squeaked by 4-3. It came on the last possible day Council could have taken a first vote on the issue and still allowed the Richland County elections office time to certify the ballot and print absentee ballots in time for the election.
A strong mayor system would give the elected mayor many of the administrative and executive duties of the current hired city manager. Proponents say it would help Columbia’s government move more quickly and decisively. Opponents say it would politicize city government and dilute the voice of the voters by concentrating power in one person. Cities vary in their approach: Greenville, like Columbia, has a council-manager system; Charleston has a strong mayor system.
Over the past several years, Council has split narrowly on whether to put the issue before voters. After Council’s latest vote against a referendum, in August, a group organized by the Greater Columbia Chamber of Commerce led the push for a petition drive. They announced last week they’d gathered enough signatures — more than 15 percent of registered city voters — to force a referendum.
However, Howard Jackson, the county’s new elections director, said there wouldn’t be time to verify the signatures and get the issue on the Nov. 5 ballot — the petition drive had missed the deadline.
But state law requires Council to schedule a vote on the referendum between 30 and 90 days after getting a verified petition. It seemed likely a special election would be needed.
So Mayor Steve Benjamin called a meeting to ask his fellow council members to vote without waiting for the signatures to be verified.
“The only reason I called this special meeting is not [to decide] whether there will be a referendum,” Benjamin said. “There will be. It’s how much it will cost the taxpayers.”
He and Councilwoman Leona Plaugh disagreed over the cost of a special election — one of many disagreements between the two that night. Benjamin said it would cost $150,000; she, no more than $90,000.
“I’m sure if we can find the $7 million to buy Palmetto Compress, we can find [the money] to hold a special election,” Plaugh said.
Plaugh says neighborhood leaders in her district have told her they don’t want a strong mayor referendum.
Benjamin pointed out that more voters had signed the petition than voted for any member of Council or for the mayor.
He decried “all this incredible foot dragging and kicking to not give the voters a chance to choose.”
It was Councilman Sam Davis, who opposes a strong mayor government for Columbia, who provided the necessary vote to tip the scales.
“The petition has neutralized me,” he said. “I’m not going to be perceived as opposing people who signed a petition.”
He said he’d be very clear with voters between now and the election as to why he thinks they should vote against the change.
The three council members who voted “no” all insisted they don’t want to block a referendum, but merely want more information out there for voters, and to follow the process prescribed by law.
“We are effectively silencing the voters every which way by not having a real dialogue about what this is,” said Councilwoman Tameika Isaac Devine. “I know several people who signed that petition who were misled as to what they were signing.”
Devine said she’d heard some petition gatherers were paid by the signature. (Free Times has verified that some gatherers were indeed paid, and that there was some sort of incentive system for them.)
And Devine questioned the push for a vote now, when it’ll be inextricably linked with the mayor’s re-election campaign.
Councilman Moe Baddourah, who is running against Benjamin for mayor, agreed.
“I feel like rushing this process will continue to put a mistrust in the voters,” he said, evoking last November’s botched Richland County election and the lawsuit that resulted.
The mayor promised a major education effort about the forms of government. Already, the League of Women Voters is planning a series of forums on the topic.
Opponents are also gearing up. Tuesday, a group of former lawmakers and neighborhood leaders, including former city councilman Daniel Rickenmann and former Municipal Association of South Carolina director Howard Duvall, announced an informal campaign against the strong mayor effort. They also called for Council to delay the referendum.
Also on Tuesday, as Free Times went to press, Council was preparing to vote on setting a salary for a strong mayor in the event the referendum passes; however, they hadn’t settled on a number. Benjamin planned to recuse himself from that discussion.
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