Sound Off

Online Extra: More Opinions on Strong Mayor

Community leaders weigh in on city voters' impending decision

By Free Times Readers
Friday, November 29, 2013

We’re still receiving op-eds and letters about Tuesday’s strong mayor referendum. And now that your thoughts have turned from turkey to the impending vote, we thought we’d give you a special online edition of Sound Off. You can find more strong mayor opinions in this week’s regular edition of Sound Off.

If you’re looking for an overview of the pros and cons of a strong mayor form of government for Columbia, see our recent cover story, Does Columbia Really Need A Strong Mayor?

Former Chamber Heads Weigh In Against Strong Mayor

As former chairpersons of the Greater Columbia Chamber of Commerce, we are reluctant to take a position against an institution and colleagues we respect.  But after reflection and study, we believe our voices might bring balance to the discussion about choosing a strong mayor. We urge you to vote “no” on December 3.

IDENTIFY THE PROBLEM BEFORE YOU IMPLEMENT A SOLUTION. When things aren’t going well in business you first identify the problem.  What is it that is wrong? Why are sales down — flawed product or slow production time? Change in demographics or increased competition? Unless you do that, you have no assurance that change will bring improvement and you risk negative unintended consequences.

Advocates for change have yet to adequately define the problem. They do not define the problem and none of their few examples necessarily depend on the structure of our government for remediation. If we do not match the problem to the solution, we could be setting ourselves up for disappointment and possible negative impacts.

CHOOSE A GOOD FIT FOR COLUMBIA’S CULTURE.  We are a medium-sized city with great diversity — not Atlanta with a large city council representing almost one-half million people. And certainly not New York with over 8 million people and a council of 51. Larger cities operate on the federal model because of huge bureaucracies and larger councils.  Smaller towns use a ‘strong mayor’ largely because they cannot afford to hire professional managers.  So the elected officials serve more like ‘volunteer’ managers, like homeowners’ associations. 

Columbia’s 4:2:1 system fits our culture.  The council-manager form of government encourages open communication between citizens and their government. Each member of Council has an equal say in policy development and administrative oversight. This gives neighborhoods and diverse groups a greater opportunity to influence policy. The flip side is that it diffuses the influence of well-funded special interests. It’s easier to use political power to influence the mayor’s one vote, rather than having to secure four.

THE CORPORATE MODEL IS EFFICIENT. We also recognize the council-manager form as a more efficient way to deliver services because it is organized like corporate governance.  In business, shareholders elect their board and chairman who in turn establish a vision for success and hire professional managers to implement their policies.  The council-manager system is similar in that the citizens elect the mayor and council members who establish policies implemented by professional managers. 

If the shareholders are not satisfied with progress, the board takes action or risk losing their board membership. A city can be more responsive to changes in the economy or natural disasters when it has professionals running the departments. The professionally managed city is the most modern form of municipal government, is the national trend and the most favored form (almost 3 to 1) among cities our size.

Under a strong mayor, the day-to-day management shifts to the mayor, who often lacks the training, education and experience to oversee the delivery of services. There is often the temptation to make key hiring and firing decisions based on political support rather than professional qualifications.

ONE FINAL CONSIDERATION. Some point to Charleston’s strong mayor and others look to council-manager cities like Greenville and Charlotte. But we are Columbia — a university and government town — with beautiful natural amenities, great cultural offerings, quality education and great neighborhoods.  We are rich with diversity and talent even if we suffer from an inability to appreciate what we are and what we have. 

Within our council-manager structure we have had able leaders — the most notable, perhaps, turned our eyes towards his vision for our riverfront and helped us see that a decaying industrial area could become a vibrant arts, education, residential and entertainment district. We all want ‘strong’ political leadership but need to understand that ‘strength’ is more a product of leadership than of organizational structure.

We recognize and respect that people of good will can look at the same information and draw different conclusions. Our view is that it is risky to make such a major change when we do not fully understand why or what we might get.  We also conclude a corporate, professional and collaborative model is better suited to meet the diverse needs of our community. We are voting “no” on December 3. 

Joel A. Smith, III
Dean Emeritus, Darla Moore School of Business, USC; former chair Greater Columbia Chamber of Commerce; retired president, Bank of America East. 
Robin Langston Gorman
former chair of the Greater Columbia Chamber of Commerce; President and CEO of Langston Gorman & Associates, LLC.

Columbia Needs Strong Mayor but with Safeguards

Columbia needs a “strong mayor” form of government. But Columbia needs a strong mayor form of government that includes the right, appropriate and balanced provisions that assure clear lines of authority balanced with provisions that assure transparent responsibility.

First, the “strong mayor” should be a FULL TIME mayor. This provision should be in the Charter of the Strong Mayor form — the basic law establishing the strong mayor form. It should not be left to the discretion of the person holding the office. Language requiring a full-time mayor should be included in the referendum to be voted on in December.

Second, the mayor should have plenary power to appoint all the principal administrative or executive officials of the city government subject to a simple majority vote of the Council. He should have plenary power to dismiss the principal administrative and executive officials.

Third, the city should have a merit system for employees who serve below the principal administrative and executive officials.

Fourth, the basic ordinance establishing the strong mayor form should define which are the principal administrative and executive positions in the city government.

Fifth, the City Council should elect from among its number a speaker or presiding officer with the duties and powers customarily associated with such a position.

Sixth, the mayor should have veto power over laws, ordinances, city charter amendments and the annual budget with a provision for an override by two-thirds of members of the City Council.

Seventh, the mayor should be required to submit a proposed annual budget to the City Council within 120 days of the beginning of each fiscal year. If the Council fails to enact a budget by the beginning of each fiscal year, the budget for the preceding year shall remain in force until a new budget is adopted without any vote by the City Council.

Eighth, the term of office for the mayor and members of the City Council should be four years with a provision that half of the members of the City Council shall be elected for staggered terms every two years.

These provisions will better enable the mayor and City Council to meet the needs of the citizens of Columbia, and provide the citizens of Columbia with an understanding of the organization, functions and powers of City Council so that they more effectively hold the mayor and City Council responsible for meeting the needs of the city and its citizens.

Columbia needs a more responsive and responsible city government. Provisions outlined above are features that will make for a responsible and responsive city government that will meet the needs of the citizens of Columbia.

Don Fowler

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