Howard, I don’t think YOU need more time on strong mayor

While I was giving blood yesterday, I saw a TV news report about the strong mayor issue, and there on the tube was Howard Duvall, former head of the state municipal association, standing in front of a group of people who are against the reform.

What struck me as weird was that Howard was asking that the referendum be delayed. For a month. He wanted this delay in part because people weren’t going to have time to study it adequately:

“If the people speak to a change in our form of government, let us do so with full awareness and knowledge,” group spokesman Howard Duvall said on the steps of the Eau Claire print building.

And I thought, Really Howard? People don’t know what they think now? And they’re not going to have enough time to wise up on the issue in the next seven weeks? But another four weeks will make it just right?

It’s just that Howard was not an ideal vessel for that message. I already know what Howard thinks about strong mayor. He’s said he was against it for years. Just as I’ve said I was for it for years. (Which will prompt Kathryn to say nobody cares what I think, since I don’t live in the city — which I’ll be happy to address separately.) Howard is fully informed on the issue, and well-equipped to disseminate his views on the matter. Seems to me that if he hasn’t reached people with his message by Nov. 5, things aren’t going to be that different by Dec. 3.

And yeah, Howard’s a special case, but it’s a bit hard to accept the idea that this has somehow snuck up on informed voters. We hammered it home at The State for years, and the paper most recently actually published a front-page editorial — something that never happened in my day — on the subject. Mayor Benjamin advocated for a referendum when he ran for office in 2010, and so did Moe Baddourah (although he reversed himself as soon as he was elected). The city council has had how many votes on it this year? At least two I can think of off-hand. This has been one of the hottest local issues for months (and years and years, for those paying attention).

So I wasn’t persuaded on that point.

But Howard had another point as well, which was “Let’s make sure that the process of change does not taint the outcome.” Which is a slightly dense statement, but let’s dilute it a bit. As The State paraphrased,

Duvall said the bipartisan group does not want a change in form of government to become a referendum on Mayor Steve Benjamin, who is seeking a second term and is a strong advocate for changing the mayor’s office into the chief executive of the city with the hiring and firing power now vested in a city manager.

Now that’s a different and intriguing point to consider.

I can see how a person might favor Steve Benjamin’s re-election but be opposed to strong mayor, and be worried about other people agreeing with him or her on the referendum, and worried they might also vote against the mayor. Of course, there’s a converse scenario in which Moe Baddourah’s chances are swamped by a big pro-strong mayor vote.

But I think people who are smart enough to find their way to the polls ought to be able to make two decisions instead of one. And… it seems like a sort of bait-and-switch to elect a mayor without knowing what that mayor’s powers will be. In fact, it would be better if the referendum were held before the mayoral vote — like, a couple of years ago, ideally (which should have happened). But it seems that same-day is the best we can do — Columbia voters can choose their mayor, and choose the powers of that office, at the same time.

Also, I appreciate having a mayor who is willing to stake his re-election, to some extent, on his stance on this reform issue. Someone who wants to be elected, or re-elected, to the office should share whatever vision he has for the city’s future. And if strong-mayor is part of that vision, I appreciate his willingness to run on it.

Kevin Fisher, in his column this week, raises another concern — that having the referendum too soon could backfire into a vote against the reform. Which, in fairness, is another way to read Howard Duvall’s concern about the process tainting the outcome. I think there’s something to that concern. This issue has been on the front burner so long that it’s kind of ridiculous that anyone would consider this a rush to judgment, but I have no doubt that some will feel that way. Never underestimate voters’ ability to completely ignore an issue until the last minute.

But in the end, I’m unpersuaded by calls to delay yet again. I agree with Warren Bolton:

Yes, it’s imperative to hold forums and disseminate information to help voters learn about the current council-manager structure as well as mayor-council, or strong mayor. But I can’t imagine that it would be too difficult for voters to comprehend a helpful nuts-and-bolts presentation on council-manager and mayor-council soon enough to vote in November.

Truth is, many voters know more about strong mayor than they do the people running for mayor and City Council. Nobody is asking for more time so voters can be educated about the people who will help run the city the next four years.

With it apparent that petition organizers have collected enough signatures to trigger an election, it only makes sense for the city to go ahead and schedule a vote on Nov. 5, along with other municipal elections. If that doesn’t happen, then the council would have to spend around $150,000 for a special election on the referendum.

And for what? A few more weeks to get information out to voters? Let’s be real. Voters need enough information to help determine which form they prefer. They don’t need a 16-week course that counts toward a college degree.

Oh, and by the way: Speaking of public forums, the Greater Columbia Community Relations Council (of which I am a member) is holding a public informational session on the issue next Wednesday, Sept. 25, at the Eau Claire Print Building, 3902 Ensor Avenue. As with the forum we had last year on the penny sales tax referendum, both sides will be presented as fairly and completely as possible. David Stanton will again moderate.

55 thoughts on “Howard, I don’t think YOU need more time on strong mayor

  1. Doug Ross

    If a strong mayor would have any control over or access to water department revenues then amyone who pays a water bill should have a say in the matter. Also if any county property taxes are spent within the city limits,we have a vested interest as well.

    1. Brad Warthen Post author

      The fact is, all of us who live in the economic community that is Columbia (which unfortunately contains two counties, more than 10 municipalities, six or seven school districts and a bunch of special purpose districts) have a stake in this.

      In part because of the weak (from a city’s perspective) annexation laws in South Carolina, most of us don’t get to vote. But I think we have the right to speak up on the issue, whatever de jure city dwellers may say.

  2. Silence

    You can speak up on the issue, but we can discount what you say based on your residency. Yes, we do all have a stake in Columbia’s success or failure. Anyone who owns property nearby, lives, works, shops, etc. has a stake. Those of us who own property in the city have more of a stake. If Columbia increases taxes to fund crap-ola or pay debts, shoppers can choose to shop outside of Columbia’s corporate limits. Businesses who lease can relocate. Water users are pretty much stuck, to the tune of tens of dollars a month. Property owners are very much stuck – real property is not liquid in the first place, and the transaction costs are very high. Figure a 6%-10% haircut to move, much more if the city becomes unlivable and it becomes harder to attract in-town buyers.

    And I think that’s the real issue here.

    Ya’ll who just work or shop in Columbia have an easier time, blythely going through life, disregarding what happens in town cause you some easy options. You think: “Hmm, taxes are 3% more in Columbia than in Lexington, I think I’ll go to Best Buy on 378 instead to get my new iPad and save $15.”

    I think: “Hmm, if city council f*&%’s up and crime and taxes both go up due to mismanagement, I am going to need to move out to Lexington for the sake of my family. I’ll take a $50,000 loss on selling my house and moving so that my children don’t get shot by gang-bangers driving through the neighborhood since now nobody wants to buy it and living here is no longer tenable.”

    Granted, that’s an extreme example. What will happen is more incremental, and may happen regardless of our form of government, depending on how our elected leaders behave. We will keep adding debt to the city’s finance mix. Our water & sewer rates will continue to increase. We’ll keep being sold tax increases to fund “essential services” all while squandering more money on non-essential projects. At some point we’ll have to increase city general fund revenues to make up shortfalls in the retiree healthcare and pension accounts. Our level of services will deteriorate as problems compound and productive people and jobs move away. It becomes a vicious cycle.

    1. Brad Warthen Post author

      Just FYI, I wouldn’t cross the street to save $15 on an iPad. If you’re spending $600 or $700 on something, that difference is just not worth the trouble.

      But then, much of the mystique of money is lost on me. I have one really good reason to fantasize about being rich — because it would mean I would never have to think about money again. Mind you, my fantasy would be to be rich enough to hire someone to handle everything having to do with my money — and someone to watch him, and someone else to watch both of them. Once a year, I’d have a meeting with them, and they’d say, “You’re still rich. Don’t worry about it.” End of meeting.

      You see why it’s highly unlikely that I’ll ever be rich, right?

  3. Doug Ross

    “Water users are pretty much stuck, to the tune of tens of dollars a month.”

    Closer to a hundred a month. How much money does it cost to have a voice in the matter? Combine my Richland County property taxes, water bills, and local sales taxes and we’re probably talking $500 a month. A good chunk of that money goes downtown.

    Using your logic, we outsiders in Richland County should push to see Columbia the city fail because it will mean more people will move out here in the boondocks, thus raising our property values. Oh wait, that already happened in the 1990’s.

    1. Silence

      Effective May 1, 2013 the water & sewer rates changed.
      For a household with a 5/8 inch meter, rates stayed the water base rate stayed the same.
      The water volumetric rate went up about 8%.
      The sewer base rate stayed the same.
      The sewer volumetric rate went up 8%.

      For a typical City of Columbia residential customer, the monthly bill would have increased from 45.20 to 47.80.
      For a typical outside of the city residential customer, the monthly bill would go from 76.84 to 81.31.
      So when I said “tens of dollars a month” I was overstating your pain. 5’s of dollars a month.

      That’s not insignificant, but it takes a whole lot of years of 8% increases to equate to the transaction costs of moving.

      1. Doug Ross

        I highly, highly, highly doubt that any decision to move would come as a result of whether there is a strong mayor or not. There are way too many variables beyond the mayor or the council’s control that would cause that to happen.

        My guess would be when you kid(s) start public school, you’ll look at that experience and decide at that time.

        1. Doug Ross

          And according to Bank Of America, my average water bill for the past 22 months = $92.03. It would have been just about $100 as I guessed if not for the unusual rain levels we experienced this summer.

          Taxation without representation, that’s what it is.

        2. Silence

          You are right about the school issue, Doug. We are fully cognizant of the glory of Richland One. We will either:
          1) Move
          2) Get a transfer or go to a charter school
          3) Start stroking big checks
          But we will cross that bridge next fall, not this fall.

          1. Phillip

            Brad, that’s the same combo we’re lined up for for our kid. So far, so very very good…but we’re only 5 weeks into 1st grade :-)

          2. susanincola

            The Brockman, Crayton, AC Flora combination has been good for us so far (now in 7th grade), though we’re in AP classes, which I think makes a huge difference.

  4. Doug Ross

    “We will keep adding debt to the city’s finance mix. Our water & sewer rates will continue to increase. We’ll keep being sold tax increases to fund “essential services” all while squandering more money on non-essential projects. At some point we’ll have to increase city general fund revenues to make up shortfalls in the retiree healthcare and pension accounts. Our level of services will deteriorate as problems compound and productive people and jobs move away. It becomes a vicious cycle.”

    Remind me not to name you to the “Welcome to Columbia” committee. If that is your expectation with the current form of government, wouldn’t you want to try another way?

  5. Doug Ross

    And let’s be clear – we’re not talking about Billy Bob from Texas weighing in on whether Columbia should have a strong mayor. I live in the same county, pay taxes and fees that support the city of Columbia, have a son who attends school downtown, attended church downtown for a decade. I may not have a vote, but I do have some level of interest in seeing Columbia succeed.

  6. Mark Stewart

    Being a home owner is not the be all and end all of life. Neither does it make one a more “committed” voter. That’s just bunk. The value of a home is not based upon the home itself; but on the home WITHIN the community – or in this case the city.

    I could write more, but what’s the point? Those that should be most for a strong mayor are opposed. One cannot defensively protect home values; many must offensively create the environment that will lead to increased home values. That starts at school and at work – not at home. Good neighborhoods are born of economic vitality. It doesn’t happen the other way around. Never has, never will.

    1. Silence

      Mark – I think you are missing my point. It’s not about who’s a more committed or a more informed voter, but it’s about having skin in the game, as Kathryn pointed out. For most homeowners, their residence is their largest asset. It’s illiquid, and relocating has enormous transaction costs. I love my neighborhood. My wife and I have been successful financially, we could live in almost any neighborhood or house in the area, but we like where we are. Kathryn’s probably in the same boat, but we are the lucky ones we have options.

      I have big problems with the process that Mayor Benjamin has been using to push his agenda items through. Calling emergency meetings of council, having important sesssions around long weekends and holidays, discouraging public discourse, and behaving in a generally nasty manner. Much like the Bull Street Project, the choice of form of governance deserves a full and rigorous public debate – a debate we haven’t really had thus far, regardless of what Brad says.
      Here are some questions that I would like to have answered about the proposed strong mayor form:
      Would the public employees all become “at will” employees? Would career civil servants be replaced or supervised by political flunkies? Would the Columbia city payroll become a slush fund for politically connected individuals? It seems to me that we have a lot of department heads who are well compensated, and many of whom have been with the city for a long time – coming up through the ranks. Would Alison Baker and Missy Gentry be replaced by Michael Wukela and Sam Johnson or their ilk? Not to disparage any of those individuals, but I’m just using them as an example. To what extent could a mayor hand-pick the city’s work force?
      How much influence would council have after the strong mayor change? Would they be able to override the mayor’s decisions?
      Was the new city manager’s salary set so high in order for the “strong” mayor’s salary to be set higher?
      Would the strong mayor still be able to work in their pre-mayor job? Could this create conflicts of interest? How would these be resolved?
      There’s a million other questions that I don’t know the answer to yet, and I feel like I’m pretty well informed.

      1. Kathryn Fenner

        Excellent analysis.
        How many people who think strong mayor is a great idea even know who Missy Gentry is, or how she got where she is?

        1. Kathryn Fenner

          Strong mayor advocates sound alarmingly like Tea Party members. Ill-informed about the actual boots on the ground aspects of running a government, they are sure that “accountability” will cure all perceived ills.

          1. Doug Ross

            It’s funny how when someone wants change, they are ill informed. These same people voted in Steve Benjamin and will vote him in again as mayor. These same ill informed people voted for the penny tax increase. They had no idea what they were voting for.

            And now the city will spend an extra $100K+ to hold a special vote a month after an already scheduled election. What a waste of money. Seriously, you need 11 weeks to inform people about this topic??? Seven weeks isn’t enough? Is there some type of comprehension problem within the city limits?

            It’s just $100K. It’s not like that money would cover a decent chunk of the homeless costs for the coming winter. Better to waste it on this nonsense.

          2. Kathryn Fenner

            No, that is not a true equivalence. People who think a strong mayor will “fix” things fall into two camps, as do the Tea Party crowd. One is very low information, but just thinks X simplistic solution will solve everything, and the other cynically exploits this.
            The strong mayor proponents who know what they are talking about think it’s great because they will only have to buy one politician. They are correct.

          3. Brad Warthen Post author

            Then there are those of us who are actually NOT idiots and believe the executive functions of government should be just as accountable, if not more so, than the legislative. And who understand the difference. And who therefore understand that “buying” a politician (usually a dubious assertion, based in a rather simplistic sort of cynicism that ignores the complexities of human interaction) doesn’t get you control over a government. The executive can’t pass an ordinance, or a budget. The legislative function remains the legislative function.

            And some of us have trouble understanding why people who claim to be the hip ones who know everything tend to oversimplify these things in their desire to defeat change.

          4. Kathryn Fenner

            I called no one an idiot, and my rhetorical flourish about “buying politicians” was an oversimplification. What I meant more precisely was the kind of tacit mutual assistance pact, perhaps coupled with campaign contributions, that makes the world go ’round. Silence and I understand that we have an agreement with city service people that we will defend them in exchange for their continuing to provide quality services to residents. A mayor who lives in Woodcreek does not understand the challenges of urban living like we or the district reps do. He sees “progress” in the kind of big ticket development like the Hughes Bull Street project, and has shown his willingness to run roughshod over us to make it happen.
            Who are the “neighborhood leaders” who the paper keeps saying back a strong mayor?

            I do stand corrected. John Stucker, our former neighborhood association president, does back a strong mayor, but then his wife is Bob “Lobbyist” Coble’s law partner. He is the one who taught me that under our current system, we can persuade our district rep, the two at-large reps and the mayor of our positions. A strong mayor is quite likely to go for bread and circuses more than clean streets.

          5. Brad Warthen

            Doug says, “Tea Party members are the same as the Occupy members – except they’ve actually accomplished something.”

            Yeah, well… I suppose Justin Bieber has accomplished something, too. Doesn’t mean it’s anything good, or constructive…

          6. Doug Ross

            I suppose Justin Bieber and his 40 million Twitter followers will be depressed by your lack of support. I think he’s a tool, but he’s a rich tool with millions of teenage girls willing to throw themselves at him. I’m sure that depresses him every day.

            The fact is that Tea Party candidates have won elections (you know, the will of the people) and had an impact on legislation. You don’t like their politics but you can’t deny they were elected for a reason. Many people are fed up with the government as it exists today and want to see it smaller, less intrusive in world affairs, and built around individual liberty. That message ain’t going away any time soon no matter how much you support the opposite philosophy.

          7. Brad Warthen Post author

            Yeah, the idea of a government that is “smaller, less intrusive in world affairs” was very popular on Dec. 6, 1941. Not so much the next day, though.

            Nothing about the Tea Party was good, right down to the name. I’ve always been embarrassed by the Boston Tea Party. A bunch of hooligans wantonly trespassing and destroying property. I would have looked with suspicion on any movement naming itself for that, even before finding out what it wanted.

            You know why? Because I’m really a conservative kind of guy. Which the Tea Partiers were not, and to the extent they still exist, are not. They are people with destructive impulses.

          8. Doug Ross

            You (Brad) and others keep trying to make the Tea Party into a fringe group of nutjobs. However, the majority of voters in many areas of the country don’t agree.
            The Tea Party is directly responsible for electing several members of Congress. Rand Paul is equal to Lindsey Graham… He will run for President and have a better shot than Joe Lieberman ever did. You can pretend that isn’t true all you want.

            The Tea Party is a response to a bloated government.

          9. Doug Ross

            Some people stopped fighting WWI in 1945. Others recognized the profit potential of perpetual wars and keep on finding enemies to fight.

          1. Mark Stewart

            I know everyone is different, but I’ve found life is best lived with those +/- 10% of one’s own age; +/- 20% for “acquaintances”.

            Twenty year olds to me are the equivalent of how I would think seals on a beach would view flocks of seagulls nearby – pleasant company at the shore but otherwise of a different realm.

          2. Doug Ross

            @Mark – I don’t think many of us middle aged folks have a choice on whether 20-30 year olds WANT to be our friends or acquaintances. It sorta just ends up that way.

            Unless you’re a single rich old guy.

          3. Mark Stewart

            Doug, outside that 10%, there is an inverse mathematical equation that more often than not comes into play.

            Still, young enough to be your child is just gross – either way.

      2. Pat

        I thought all public employees, with the exceptions of certified teachers who work with a contract, were already at-will employees.

        1. Kathryn Fenner

          Anybody who has a contract is not at will. Tenured professors are not at will.
          Otherwise, this is a right to get fired state.

          1. FParker

            And tenure needs to be eliminated. Ever known a post-tenure college professor ever to get fired regardless of how worthless they become at their job?

          2. Pat

            Public school teacher contracts do have a path for termination if it is needed. I don’t know about contracts for public college professors, but I can’t imagine a clause or two isn’t there.

  7. Mark Stewart

    I heard a really smart macro-economics analyst speak yesterday. He had severally interesting ideas rolled into a thesis about the future.

    He said: “Societies that are better at compromise will have better markets, not because they have better pricing systems, but because they’re better at having conversations that lead to compromise.” Forget the investor perspective, it’s about the process inherent in seeking excellence.

    He said lots of other stuff, which cut both ways when thinking about Columbia and its prospects for the future, but that’s a good thought for the morning.

  8. Silence

    Got a nice Email from councilwoman Devine regarding this issue:

    Dear Voters:
    Recently, City Council has had several narrow votes regarding whether to place a question on the ballot in reference to changing our current form of government from a council-manager form to a mayor-council form of government. In all votes, I voted against placing this very important question on the ballot before citizens could be thoroughly educated. I have heard from many people who support my votes because they feel our current form of government is the best for all of Columbia, because it includes representation for all communities. I have also heard from some people who have expressed disappointment in my votes because they think I am denying the citizens the right to vote. That is definitely not the case. My votes have not been based on my personal feelings regarding the best form of government but has been based on doing what is right for all voters and providing all the facts without rushing through the process.

    I can assure you that I do not take any of my votes as a member of City Council lightly. As an American, I take the allegation that I am denying anyone’s right to vote very seriously. The struggles that many members of my own family had to endure to gain the right to vote is not lost on me and I have always respected the people’s right to vote as a fundamental right in this country. A right that many people fought and died for so you and I, and future generations, could exercise that right.

    I truly believe that, as your at-large elected representative, I have a responsibility to make sure that you are given the opportunity to make an informed decision on important matters that get placed before you for a vote. Critics will say that we have talked about this for years and it is now time to act. The State newspaper, the business community and politicians may have talked about this for years, but the citizens have not. It is very apparent from the questions I get everyday that there is still a lot of confusion about what a mayor-council form of government really means and what is the long term impact. My position has been and remains that we owe it to our citizens to answer these questions thoroughly so that they can make an informed decision about their collective future and the futures of their children and grandchildren.

    There is now a petition that has been presented asking for a referendum on this matter, so the citizens will vote on this matter soon. Although I remain gravely concerned about the motives behind the petition, the tactics used to gather the requisite number of signatures, and the push to move forward before the petition could be certified, I respect the process and know we need to move forward with deciding this question once and for all.

    Undoubtedly, the money and influence that was behind getting signatures on this petition will put even more effort and funding behind trying to get this question passed favorably by the voters. But, true democracy cannot be bought because our forefathers and ancestors have shown us that “we the people” have a voice. I urge all of you, as citizens of this city, to ask the right questions and make your own decisions regarding this matter.

    During the special called City Council meeting, on September 18th, I made a substitute motion to place this important matter before the people on December 3rd. That motion passed because it is the right thing to do. It gives all voters more time to become better informed and learn more about the long term impact of changing our form of government.

    There will be several information sessions that voters can attend in order to speak, ask questions and get the answers they need. The Community Relations Council will hold a forum on Sept 25 at the Eau Claire Print Building, 3907 Ensor Avenue, and the League of Women Voters will hold 2 sessions on Oct 3 and on Oct 17 at the USC School of Law, 701 S. Main Street. All sessions will be held from 5:30 p.m. to 7:30 p.m. I encourage our leaders in our neighborhoods and community organizations to schedule education sessions in your communities before December 3rd. For more information about these sessions or to share information about a session that is being scheduled, contact the City Clerk at 545-3043 or email

    As always, you are also welcome to contact me with your questions or concerns. You can reply to this email or call my office at 254-8868.

    This is a very important decision for our community and it should not be made until our voters know the facts. I urge each of you to get involved, get informed, exercise your right to vote and choose your form of government on December 3rd. This is a time to have your voices heard about the future of our city.

    Your public servant,
    Tameika Isaac Devine

    1. Doug Ross

      So what special knowledge will be gained between November and December? There are three forums more than two weeks before the election. How much more time is needed to make a decision? The average person of limited intelligence could understand the pros and cons of this decision in about 30 minutes.

      She apparently feels this is a delay worth $100,000 (not her money). It’s about trying to sway public opinion with disinformation and scare tactics.

      1. Doug Ross

        And she left out this:

        P.S. I am very aware that a strong mayor system will cause me to lose power and this is what is driving my behavior.

        1. FParker

          Exactly, why would a city councilman/woman push for a strong mayor? Doing so does one thing, weakens the council member’s seat.

          She needs to be removed from council simply for stating that this should be determined by special election rather than included in with the November election and costing the city $100,000. Maybe if it were coming out of her pocket she’d think otherwise.

  9. Mark Stewart

    Had any of that been true, Devine would have voted – before being forced to accept the petition drive – to hold a referendum vote on a strong mayor that, if passed, would take effect on the next following mayoral election.

    For several years the council members have, and continue to, avoid holding this referendum vote. It isn’t anything but self-serving. That is transparently clear.

    Accept it or not, Columbia is stagnant at present. When a city, region or state (or country) is stagnant it is actually losing, not treading water or holding its own or any of the other euphemisms for failing. If Columbia wants to accelerate its economic growth it needs to embrace a new political paradigm. That is just the plain, unvarnished truth.


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