Category Archives: Government restructuring

ALL of Richland Election Commission should be replaced

This morning, when I read that there was the potential for every member of the Richland County election commission to be replaced, I wrote on Twitter, “And all five SHOULD be replaced.”

Rep. Nathan Ballentine both favorited and reTweeted my post, so I know I have at least one member of the delegation agreeing with me.

This afternoon, when I got back into town from a business trip to Greenwood, I got a call from a friend, a local businessman who is at the point of retirement, who said he was interested in serving if the delegation was interested in having him. He’s a man who has had a certain success in business, and has been very active in the community. He has no political interests or ambition, and doesn’t want to start playing political games at this stage in life. He’s just concerned about this problem in his community, and is willing to pitch in and help if anyone thinks he can.

In other words, he’s just the kind of person we need serving on the commission.

I called James Smith and asked what the procedure was. I was told he should call the delegation office and get a form to fill out. I passed on the information.

There are at this point about 40 names in the hopper. Here’s hoping that out of the 40, plus the additional ones that will come in now that they’re starting a new filing period, the delegation will find five people willing and able to fix this problem. And that the delegation will actually choose those five…

Too bad. He sounds like the kind of chief the city could have used

Busy day today, but I didn’t want it to pass completely without saying a word about this:

COLUMBIA, SC — A candidate for Columbia police chief on Wednesday leveled tough criticism toward city officials as he withdrew from the search….

In an interview with The State newspaper, Fisher said the city lacked consistency within its leadership and questioned why interim Chief Ruben Santiago remained on the job after being the target of a federal and state investigation.

But Fisher stopped short of calling the city dysfunctional.

“In my close to 40 years in law enforcement, I’ve had the fortune to work in a cohesive, visionary environment where all seem to have the same goals – the politicians and the professionals,” Fisher said. Columbia “could have been a challenge for me.”

The selection process had been “laborious and indeterminate,” Fisher said.

He also indicated that the frequency with which City Council discusses merging the police and sheriff’s departments was a concern. Those conversations affect the entire organization, he said.

“There is no consistency in leadership and expectations,” Fisher said….

This is too bad. A chief who came into office with his eyes this wide open might have had a chance of succeeding. I say “might” because anyone who works — indirectly — for a city manager who in turn works for seven very divided bosses is highly likely to fail.

Columbia is increasingly dysfunctional under this system that the political elite managed to maneuver the voters into keeping. And it’s getting worse day by day. Anybody with clear vision is likely to run the other way rather than take this job…

Scoppe on elections commission: Excellent column on why a horrendous mess is worse than you thought

Cindi Scoppe did a good job this morning of telling us why the Richland County elections mess is even worse than we thought. An excerpt:

JUST WHEN you thought the mess that is the Richland County Board of Elections and Voter Registration couldn’t get any worse — never a safe assumption when we’re dealing with the spawns of the Legislative State — we learn that the temporary stay that had allowed the unconstitutional board to keep operating was lifted. In December.

Which means … well, that’s a good question.

It should mean that former commissioner Sam Selph is not interim director of the agency, because the board that last week appointed Mr. Selph had no legal authority to act.

For that matter, it should mean that Howard Jackson still is the director, because surely a board that has been declared unconstitutional would not take personnel actions of such magnitude.

It should mean that we have returned to thestatus quo ante — with separate boards running separate offices of elections and voter registration, with new commissioners who have the knowledge and capability and integrity to make legal hiring decisions and run legitimate elections.

But clearly the latter has not happened, and there’s a little glitch that makes far from clear when it can happen or what must happen on the other fronts. Which should surprise no one…. 

Ladies and gentlemen, this is very like a complete breakdown of government, one in which functions that are fundamental to our democracy have ceased to work, and no one is clearly in a position to fix the problem. Which is what you get when you let fundamental services be provided by cockeyed legislation unconstitutionally pushed into place by that bizarre hermaphroditic creature, the county legislative delegation.

As an addendum to her column, Cindi referred us to a previous piece she did last year about this mess — explaining the Power Failure, Legislative State roots of the problem — which concluded thusly:

The Legislative State might have served its purpose in the days when slaves picked cotton for the wealthy plantation owners whose interests it was crafted to serve. It might have worked a century ago, when the textile magnates controlled our government and could depend on it to provide those limited services that they needed. Maybe it even served its purpose in the ’50s, when South Carolina still could pretty much ignore the rest of the world, and government didn’t do a lot more than educate white people and pave roads for the industrialists and planters.

It does not serve its purpose, or our purpose, or anybody’s purpose today.

When things go well, it gives us state agencies that waste money and provide inferior services because they have overlapping mandates and don’t work together or even talk to each other. It hamstrings governors’ ability to deliver on the agenda the voters elected them to implement. It diverts state legislators’ attention from fixing our state’s problems, as they busy themselves delivering patronage and fixate on parochial matters that should be handled by local governments.

And when things don’t go well …. Well, then it gives us botched elections and identity theft on a massive scale and officials who lack the legal authority to make things right.

It’s time for a change.

That piece ran in 2012. Nothing has changed.Which is no surprise to those of us who’ve been writing about these problems for more than two decades.

That Cindi is just all business, even on Twitter

Had to smile when I noticed that Cindi Scoppe had posted something in Twitter seconds before I did this morning, so that we had back-to-back Tweets:

cindi twitter

That Cindi has always been all business. I use Twitter for serious purposes, too, but I also like to have fun. Which is why I Tweet a lot more than she does (about 10 times as much, so far — but I had a head start).

As for the serious business, by all means go read her piece about other reform measures that would take us a lot further down the line that the one just passed doing away with the Budget and Control Board. It’s stuff I could recite in my sleep, since we started advocating for these things in 1991, but it’s important.

As for my Tweet… You know what I’m talking about, right? After the guy says, “You’re WHAT?!?!” (At 3:37 on this video), I had always heard the response to be, “Ennnn ROUTE… Russss.”

But I was never sure I had it right. So when the song came on the radio this morning, I flipped on my SoundHound app while waiting at a red light, and the lyrics that came up said that the line was… “Tin roof, rusted.” (And no, I wasn’t driving while I Tweeted. I waited until I was seated at breakfast.)

If that’s right, it’s a disappointment. I thought my version sounded kind of off, but it’s more logical as a response to “You’re WHAT?” Because, you know, much of the song has to do with traveling TO the Love Shack. So you might naturally tell someone you were en route.

But you don’t care, do you? I can see that. So go read Cindi’s piece. Edify yourself.

Open Thread for Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Quick: Where have you seen this picture before?

Quick: Where have you seen this picture before?

Y’all are free to take off on the subject of your choosing.

But if you have trouble coming up with one, here’s one that’s on my mind this morning. Did you see this?

he S.C. House’s main budget-writing panel voted Tuesday to allow counties and cities to buy some state roads.

Now, counties must use 25 percent of the money that they get from the General Assembly to maintain state roads. If the amendment approved Tuesday becomes part of next year’s budget, counties and other local governments instead could use that 25 percent to buy state roads.

Road purchases by counties and local governments could eat into the more than 20,000 miles of state roads that are 2 miles long or shorter, said House and Ways Chairman Brian White, R-Anderson.

The state owns and maintains more than 41,000 miles of roads, the vestige of years of state control over local governments….

The question that immediately comes to mind is, why on Earth would already-strapped local governments want to buy roads from the state?

If state government would set local governments free to raise taxes as they see fit, maybe localities could take on this added burden. Until that happens, local governments would be crazy to take on maintenance of roads that the state can’t seem to come up with the money to take care of. Yeah, this plan supposedly offers a revenue source — a fixed amount grudgingly provided by the state. But if the state can’t get the job done with that money now, how is distributing it to multiple entities, each with its own structure and administrative costs, going to fix the problem?

A strong thread in the narrative of the state’s relationship with local governments, ever since the false promise of Home Rule in the mid-70s, has been to foist off on the locals things the state doesn’t want to pay for, without allowing the locals to come up with their own ways of paying for it. The state gives an unfunded, or underfunded, mandate with one hand, and holds the locals down with the other, greatly restricting how they can raise revenue.

Maybe there’s a good point in this idea somewhere, but I’m missing it.

Sorry. Didn’t mean to go on and on about this. This is an open thread…

Sheheen celebrates passage of restructuring bill

Vincent Sheheen’s Senate office put this release out today:

Sen. Sheheen’s Leadership Delivers Greater Accountability for South Carolinians
After nearly a decade of work, legislature approves Sen. Sheheen’s bipartisan plan to overhaul state government
Today, the House and the Senate both passed the conference report on S.22, Sen. Sheheen’s government restructuring plan. Sen. Sheheen first introduced this bill in 2007. Sen. Sheheen released this statement:
“For nearly a decade, we’ve worked across the aisle to build a bipartisan coalition around my bill to overhaul state government and increase accountability. Today, South Carolinians have results.
“The conference report passed today requires the legislature to hold regular oversight hearings of state agencies to stop the major failures and cover-ups we’ve seen at the Department of Revenue after the hacking, at DHEC after the tuberculosis outbreak at a public school, and at DSS with the alarming rise of child deaths. This overhaul streamlines day-to-day management in the administration to help reduce costs and, most importantly, stops agencies from running up deficits and then asking taxpayers to pick up the bill.
“South Carolinians have had to wait long enough for the accountability they deserve from Governor Haley and her administration. I urge the Governor to sign my bill immediately.”
###

He’s blowing his own horn here, but he deserves to do so. This was his idea, and he’s worked hard to advance it for years.

That bit at the end about the governor, however, was unnecessary and will look pretty silly when she signs it and celebrates it as her own — and more people will hear her than will understand that this was Sheheen’s reform.

Politics is unfair that way.

Video: Sheheen explaining his restructuring bill in 2008

I was looking for a picture of Vincent Sheheen to go with the last post, and ran across this video clip that I had forgotten.

It’s from the meeting on January 29, 2008, when he unveiled his restructuring plan to Cindi Scoppe and me, in the editorial board room at The State.

It’s short — the camera I used then would only shoot video for three minutes at a time — and there are several other clips from after this one that I did not upload.

But I share this one because in it, he shows how well he understood the actual power situation in South Carolina.

When talking about South Carolina’s unique situation as the “Legislative State” (even back in 1949, when some other Southern states had some similar such arrangements, political scientist V. O. Key called South Carolina that in his classic. Southern Politics in State and Nation), we tend to use a lazy shorthand. We say that SC lawmakers don’t want to surrender power to the governor.

That glosses over an important truth, one that we elaborated on in the Power Failure series back in 1991, but which I don’t stop often enough to explain any more: It’s that the Legislature, too, lacks the power to exert any effective control over state government. This leads to a government in which no one is in charge, and no one can be held accountable.

There was a time, long ago — pre-WWII, roughly, and maybe for awhile between then and the 1960s, which saw expansions of government programs on a number of levels — when lawmakers actually could run executive agencies, at least in a loose, informal way. On the state level, agencies answered to boards and commissions whose members were appointed by lawmakers. On the local level, they ran things more directly, calling all the shots. This was before county councils were empowered (more or less) in the mid-70s.

But as state agencies grew, they became more autonomous. Oh, they kept their heads down and didn’t anger powerful lawmakers, especially at budget time, but there was generally no effective way for legislators to affect their day-to-day operations. And while lawmakers appointed the members of boards and commissions, they lacked the power to remove them if they did something to attract legislative ire.

And on the local level, the advent of single-member districts broke up county delegations as coherent local powers. Yes, we have vestiges of that now — the Richland County elections mess is an illustration of this old system, as is the Richland recreation district and other special purpose districts, all legislative creations — but largely, they’re out of the business of running counties.

Increasingly in recent decades, the main power wielded by the Legislature has been a negative power — the ability to block things from happening, rather than initiate sweeping changes. And that’s what the General Assembly is best at — blocking change, for good or ill. That’s why the passage of this Department of Administration bill is such a milestone.

Anyway, while he doesn’t say all that stuff I just said, in this clip, Sheheen shows that he understands that no one is actually in charge, and that someone needs to be, so that someone can be held accountable. Or at least, that’s the way I hear it.

You may wonder why I think it remarkable that a state senator would exhibit such understanding of the system. Well… that’s just rarer than you may think.

Restructuring debate has dragged on for decades, plural, not ‘three years’

Plenty of reason to smile, but... she didn't start the reform ball rolling.

Plenty of reason to smile, but… she didn’t start the reform ball rolling.

First, let’s celebrate that the Legislature has now decided to let the actual, elected chief executive be responsible and accountable for another significant portion of the state’s executive branch.

And that they’re setting aside a governing body — the Budget and Control Board — that made a mockery of the separation of powers doctrine. (Although for some of that body’s current functions, the bill will create a new “State Fiscal Accountability Authority,” on which the same legislative leaders retain their seats.)

But while we’re celebrating, let’s retain our historical perspective. From The State‘s story this morning:

“The push to create a Department of Administration has been a three-year fight and getting it over the finish line will be a tremendous win for the people of this state,” Haley spokesman Doug Mayer said, referring to the Republican’s time in office. “This is another example of South Carolina moving in the right direction.”…

If Adam Beam hadn’t included that explanatory phrase, “referring to the Republican’s time in office,” I wouldn’t have had a clue what that “three-year” reference meant.

After all — as I documented at the time — Vincent Sheheen first came to my office to begin pushing this plan (the bill that passed is his) in January 2008. And he came to propose this approach as a way of breaking an impasse that long predated his move, or even his time in office.

I was also a bit puzzled by the headline on The State‘s story, which was “After decade of debate, lawmakers agree to restructure government.”

Now, lest you think that I’m dating this debate to my Power Failure series in 1991, I have to tell you it goes farther back than that. Yes, the really active discussion of the need to restructure our government to, among other things, put the executive in charge of executive functions, started at that time — partly because of our series, and partly because Carroll Campbell took it on as a signature issue.

But, as we documented in the first installment of Power Failure, there had been numerous (if I had a reprint at hand, I could tell you exactly how many) blue-ribbon panels recommending these changes, or changes very like them, since 1945. All ignored, for the simple reason that lawmakers had no intention letting go of their excessive power, or reducing the fragmentation and dilution of what executive authority existed (divided among nine separately elected constitutional officers). It’s not like this was my idea, or the paper’s, or Campbell’s. Lots of folks had been trying to drag the state out of 17th century, which was when the SC pattern of governance began. Originally, it was about putting a class of slaveholding landed gentry in charge of the colony, and then state, without a co-equal executive branch to balance their power. After that class faded from history, lawmakers held onto their power just because.

As Sen. Larry Martin said, this is the most significant restructuring step by the state since the big reform of 1993, which put most executive agencies (although not all, and not the one that oversaw the biggest chunk of state spending — the Department of Education) under the governor. That followed on Campbell’s and The State’s efforts.

The only noteworthy change since then was a year or so ago, when it was decided that in the future — but after this governor has left office — the lieutenant governor will be elected on the same ticket as the governor.

Martin promises more to come, including getting rid of the two most glaring instances of someone being separately elected to oversee parts of the executive branch, bringing the adjutant general and superintendent into the Cabinet.

I look forward to seeing that. In any case, it’s great to see lawmakers finally addressing something from my list of “South Carolina’s Unfinished Business” in my last column at the newspaper.

Nor did he, although he deserves as much credit as anyone currently in office. This is from when he unveiled the plan in 2008.

Nor did he, although he deserves as much credit as anyone currently in office. This is from when he unveiled the plan in 2008.

McConnell to step down from elective office

By all accounts, he has really thrown himself into the work of running the Office on Aging as lt. gov.

By all accounts, he has really thrown himself into the work of running the Office on Aging as lt. gov.

Wow, it’s kind of hard to imagine the State House without Glenn McConnell.

He was, for so many years, arguably (that being every journalist’s favorite hedge word) the most powerful person in state government, for good or ill.

He’s the guy who was the biggest defender of the Legislative State and barrier to reform, yet led a significant improvement in the way South Carolina chooses judges.

He was the champion of limited government and spending ceilings, yet managed to come up with all that dough for the Hunley.

He was, finally, the man who liked to dress up as an Old School Southern gentleman, who then acted like a real gentleman by giving up power for a point of honor (when he agreed to give up his position in the Senate to occupy the low-status job of lieutenant governor, rather than trying to engineer a way around the rules).

Now he’s giving up that job, for a shot at academe:

COLUMBIA — S.C. Lt. Gov. Glenn McConnell will not seek another term and instead push to become president at his alma mater, the College of Charleston.

McConnell has said he wanted to make a decision since the college’s presidential search timetable conflicts with the June primary. A new president to succeed George Benson will not be named until around March.

“Any effort to pursue both goals at the same time is simply not an honorable path,” McConnell said in statement Monday. “It would not be fair to good candidates who may want to seek this office. Most of all, it would not be fair to the voters of South Carolina to ask them to support me for lieutenant governor if there is even a chance I might not remain in the campaign. For those reasons, I have decided I will not be a candidate for re-election. And I will instead formally offer my name for consideration to the College of Charleston.”…

The State House is losing a true original…

This year’s One Book: Conroy’s “My Reading Life”

Tony Tallent, the Director of Literacy and Learning at Richland Library, announced this year's selection.

Tony Tallent, the Director of Literacy and Learning at Richland Library, announced this year’s selection.

Last night, I dropped by Richland Library for the unveiling of the chosen book for the 2014 “One Book” program.

It’s My Reading Life, by Pat Conroy. Everyone was pretty pumped about it, in part because the author himself will be participating in the program.conroy

I look forward to reading it myself, and joining in discussions of it. As you may recall, I moderated a discussion at the library for this past year’s selection, A.J. Mayhew’s The Dry Grass of August, a book I enjoyed much more than I had thought I would.

Which I suppose is kinda the point of participating in a program that gets you to read something you might not have. It’s broadening to get pulled away, however briefly, from my obsessive re-reading of Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey-Maturin series (I’m currently on about my sixth trip through some of the books — I still haven’t allowed myself to read the very last two in the series).

Now, to digress…

After the announcement, I got involved in a discussion of the strong-mayor referendum with Mike Miller, Tim Conroy (the author’s brother and a longtime Columbian), and City Councilman Sam Davis. All of us, except Mr. Davis, had been deeply disappointed by the outcome. He listened patiently to us, and we listened patiently to him, but I don’t think any minds were changed.

We were joined late in the discussion by our old blog friend James D. McAllister, a writer and owner of Loose Lucy’s. He was against strong-mayor, but Kathryn would probably discount his opinion, since, like me, he doesn’t live in the de jure city.

Anyway, back to the book… maybe we should all read it and have a good discussion of it here on the blog. Whaddya think?

No, that is NOT me. That's Mike Miller with Tim Conroy.

No, that is NOT me. That’s Mike Miller with Tim Conroy, later in the evening at First Thursday on Main.

The Shandonistas strike back: Strong-mayor was stopped by insiders. Again.

During a lively discussion on a previous post, Phillip Bush wrote:

You should be happy, Brad. The State’s article today alluded to the “unusual bedfellows” who were joined in opposition to this measure, it crossed all sorts of party/ideology lines. (For that matter, so did the Yes side)….

In reply to that, and in response to a comment from Kathryn Fenner about us “outsiders” who wanted the change, I wrote the following (and then decided it should be a separate post rather than a comment)…

Oh, DANG! In copying the above comment from Phillip, I lost it! OK, I’ll try to reconstruct it…

This reform was defeated by insiders, no question about it. Insiders who managed to persuade a majority of the few who turned out to vote with them. So congratulations to them for winning. Again. The strategy of having a completely unnecessary extra election in order to separate the issue from the re-election of a popular mayor worked. (The idea that an extra month was needed for discernment, after all these years of discussion, was risible.)

But as for the idea that I should be happy…

It’s facile to say, look, there are Democrats and Republicans, black and white people, working together on this. Those are granfalloons, within this context. As I’m sure Bokonon would tell you if he lived here, as meaningless as granfalloons can be the rest of the time, they are particularly irrelevant to a city election in Columbia. The group I saw aligned against this was, to my eye, homogeneous — a true karass, to keep the Vonnegut theme going.

This was, on one level, a case of the Shandonistas striking back. Look at the chief apostles of “No,” who celebrated their victory in the ultimate Columbia insider salon: Kit Smith’s house. Kit herself, Howard Duvall, Rusty DePass, Tameika Devine, Moe Baddourah (a relative newcomer to insiderism, but a very quick study — he changed his mind on strong mayor between the day he was elected and his very first council meeting).

Am I saying these are bad people? Absolutely not. I like and respect all of them. The kind of insider I’m talking about is generally someone who has given much to the community. These are good, dedicated people. But as I say, they have gained, I’ll even say earned, a certain access — through election, or through years of volunteer advocacy — to the current power structure.

Now, the power structure that exists is a feeble thing. It moves slowly and ponderously, and is far better at stopping things from happening than at making them happen. But it is power, and it’s the kind these folks have access to. Power that, let me hasten again to add, all of them want to use for good. But whether you want to do good or ill, in politics, you “dance with the one that brung you.” And this system is the one that “brung” these folks to the point of being able to achieve whatever they have accomplished thus far. They are invested in it.

Meanwhile, strong-mayor is a more open, less controllable, broader, more dynamic system. Empowering a chief executive who has a mandate from a majority of voters increases volatility, makes it more likely that things will happen. Those of us who have enough faith in democracy to believe enough good things will happen to outweigh the bad — and believe in the power of greater transparency (which is a feature of strong-mayor) to correct the bad — tend to favor it. Those who fear the bad that can happen tend to oppose it — especially when they themselves have access to the keys that can occasionally move the present, slower, less dynamic, more conservative system.

Strong-mayor — and Steve Benjamin himself — represent a broader view of what Columbia is and can be, a view that includes all of us who live in the de facto city, all of us whose destinies are tied up with it. Those with a narrower view — who can speak in terms of “them” telling “us” how to run “our” town — will reject it. To them, it’s just far too risky. Interests that don’t have their acutely-tuned sense of the community’s good might have an impact on what happens, and that’s just too uncomfortable.

Phillip says I’m wrong to equate this with the Legislature’s ongoing refusal to empower the executive (and thereby the people who elected the executive). Perhaps he’s right, but I don’t think so. I’ve been here before. When we did the Power Failure series back in the early 90s (which advocated for local reforms as well as statewide ones), I noticed how many really good, smart, dedicated people who cared deeply about South Carolina — officeholders, political operatives, lobbyists for idealistic nonprofits, and so on — reacted negatively to what we were writing. I thought a lot of most of these people. They were people I’d like to have arguing for these reforms rather than against. They were important influencers. So we hosted a series of luncheons — about 30 people at a time — consisting of these vocal opponents, to address their questions and explain why we were doing this. But with most of them, I had trouble selling our idea of cluing the Great Unwashed out there into why South Carolina didn’t work better than it did. And that’s because all of these people had learned to move this system as well as it could be moved, although in limited ways. They knew how things worked, to the extent that they worked, and many of them believed that was enough.

Bottom line, many smart people will see diversity in the successful opposition. But I see what the chief opponents had in common more clearly than their differences.

How did YOU vote on strong mayor, and why?

This is just for our de jure city dwellers, as opposed to those of us who live in the de facto city, but don’t get to vote on its governance. (Or pay the taxes. Or get the services.)

So how did y’all vote? I’d like to compare my readership to the actual citywide vote.

Don’t tell us if you don’t want to. But if you don’t mind being up-front about it, unburden thyself: How did you vote, and why?

Firefighters join cops in backing strong-mayor reform

A group of neighborhood and community leaders gather to endorse strong-mayor on Monday.

A group of neighborhood and community leaders gather to endorse strong-mayor on Monday.

This just in from Adam Fogle with the strong-mayor campaign:

Columbia Firefighter’s Association backs Yes Vote on Strong Mayor

COLUMBIA, SC — The Columbia Firefighter’s Association announced on Tuesday that they are urging Columbia residents to vote yes for modern strong mayor form of government that will give the Mayor Columbia the authority needed to ensure public safety is a top priority.

Anthony Holloway, President of the Columbia Firefighters Association, explained his organization’s decision to back the strong mayor system:

Our city is at a crossroads and we have a tremendous decision to make today: change or more of the same.  We know first hand that the present system is holding our first responders back.  That’s why we hope Columbia voters will vote yes for a safer city and a more accountable government.

The fire service has been struggling with an attrition problem for years — a problem that is only getting worse.  Despite the genuine efforts of many in the fire department and the city government, most days there are fire trucks that are under-staffed or taken out of service simply because we don’t have enough firefighters on staff.

The attrition issue and many other concerns facing our city’s firefighters could have been resolved by now if the mayor had the authority to act. But under the present system, important decisions often get deferred and no one is held responsible for the consequences. A strong mayor system would fix that.

Mayor Benjamin is standing up and saying “I will be responsible.” That is a bold move that we fully support.

# # #

And so the firefighters join the Columbia Chapter of the Southern States Police Benevolence Association in favoring reform.

 

Rep. James Smith on why he’s for strong-mayor

Here’s a release I received today from Rep. James Smith:

There are many good people who care about the future of the City of Columbia on both sides of the debate about our city’s form of government.  Please allow me to tell you why I’m VOTING YES for a Strong Mayor tomorrowand I hope you will too.

Columbia is fortunate to be served by a dedicated and conscientious City Council and city staff who do their best to serve us every day.  But I believe our city is hindered by a system that lacks the fundamental elements of accountability that are the bedrock of our Democracy.JES_post_pic

We know this issue has been debated and discussed for the better part of two decades. We know this is the most popular form of government in South Carolina and the same model used by our state and federal governments.  And we know the only reason we have this chance to adopt a more effective and accountable Strong Mayor form of government is because over 12,000 individuals just like you who signed a petition and demanded the right to vote.

Some in opposition want to make this about politics and power.  But the simple truth is that City Council’s authority doesn’t change at all and a Strong Mayor would have no more power than the City Manager has right now.  The only difference is that you hire the Mayor and you can fire the Mayor.  The same can’t be said of the City Manager.

The Mayor answers to you and it doesn’t matter how many petitions you sign or how loudly you protest, the City Manager never will.  That’s the only difference… but it makes all the difference.

  • When the city comes to edge of bankruptcy and no one is held accountable, the system is broken.
  • When no one takes responsibility for years of deferred water/sewer maintenance resulting in EPA intervention and rate increases, the system is broken.
  • When the police chief can’t do his job without getting permission from an Assistant City Manager, City Manager, any number of department heads and a panel of politicians, the system is broken.
  • When the red tape keeps the Mayor you elected from doing what you elected him to, the system is definitely broken.

We need to fix it.

This is our chance to make a real difference, to step forward into a new and more effective government and build the Columbia we’ve always dreamed of.

This is our moment. Tomorrow, December 3, Vote YES for accountability. Vote YES for safety. Vote YES for change and for a greater Columbia.

We’ve been on hold long enough.  Let’s move forward together.

Your friend,

Representative James Smith

Haley’s backing of strong-mayor shows laudable consistency

Still catching up with news from over the long weekend. I was fighting a cold, and did not leave the house from Wednesday afternoon until this morning. Nor did I blog (did ya notice?) or even read news, which might have tempted me to blog, which I did not feel up to (or, as the pedants would have it, up to which I did not feel).

So I’m only now reacting to this:

Gov. Nikki Haley has come out in support of Columbia’s strong mayor referendum, which will be decided on Tuesday, after discussing the issue with Mayor Steve Benjamin.

A mailer explaining her position was sent to residents late this week.

“After talking to Mayor Benjamin, Governor Haley was happy to lend her support,” said Rob Godfrey, a spokesman for Haley, in a statement. “The governor has long believed in restructuring government to produce accountability and efficiency for the people it serves — not just in state government, but at every level of government.”…

Good for her. As you may know, government restructuring is one of those subjects on which our present governor and I agree, since I have advocated the commonsense notion of actually putting the elected chief executive in charge of the executive branch since she was in school.

And I’ve favored a strong-mayor system for Columbia just about as long. The idea arises from the same principle: putting the day-to-day government in the hands of someone chosen by the voters, rather than in the hands of a hired manager who answers neither to the people nor to any single, accountable individual.

So I’m glad Mayor Benjamin reached out to Gov. Haley, and I’m glad she responded so positively and sensibly.

TV ad probably not best medium for strong-mayor pitch

Not that there’s anything in particular wrong with it. It’s just that the medium forces oversimplification.

It does hit the accountability issue, which is key. But helping people understand how a strong mayor is more accountable takes explanation.

Absurdly, opponents of reform have tried to claim that a city manager is more accountable. Their argument is that the manager can be fired any time, rather than having to wait until re-election time.

That is rendered absurd by experience. No one who has seven equal bosses can be said to have a boss at all. Anyone recall how long it took city council even to do an evaluation of Charles Austin? I’m sort of asking, because I don’t recall the exact length of time myself. But it was outrageously long, reflecting how difficult it is for a body of seven people to agree on what direction and feedback a manager should receive.

And anyone who thinks an elected mayor is accountable only at election time hasn’t paid attention to the way elected officials actually behave, which is to look over their shoulders constantly to make sure the voters are happy with the job they’re doing.

Anyway, for what it’s worth, I pass on the advert.

Demolishing the ‘professional manager’ argument against strong-mayor

The State is pulling out all the stops on strong-mayor to the point that Cindi is joining Warren in writing about it.

Of course, it’s not much of a stretch, since Cindi’s been writing about similar issues on the state level for decades now. In fact, while a lot of people remember that the “Power Failure” series pointed to a Cabinet form of government on the state level, there were two entire installments (each of them several full pages long, back when a newspaper page was a lot of space) devoted to our weak, ineffectual, fragmented local governing arrangements in South Carolina.

In her column, Cindi demolishes the anti- argument that the current system gives us “a professional manager,” instead of a politician. She does this in a most brutal fashion, by citing Columbia’s actual experiences with “professional managers.”

Beyond that, she points out that in government, unlike in the corporate world, the principle of representative democracy is crucial. “A professional instead of a politician” sounds good to people who don’t stop and think about the difference between business and government. Imagine, for a moment, Jack Nicholson in “The Departed,” explaining emphatically to the Chinese gangsters how we do things “in this country.”

In this country, “politics” is not, contrary to popular belief, a bad word. It’s the way government plugs itself in to its only legitimate power source, the people. Politics is the legitimate human interaction between voters and the elected, between different elected people, and among voters themselves. It is the one legitimate form of decision-making in the American system of governance.

Government in America is not a clockwork orange. It’s not a wind-up toy, that works all by itself as long as someone has an instruction manual. It requires that actual political decisions be made by humans, and that those decisions are acted up in an effective and accountable manner.

To quote from Cindi’s column:

INTERSPERSED with their dire warnings of corruption and patronage and bossism, the opponents of putting the mayor in charge of Columbia’s government like to talk nobly of the professionalism of the current system.

It’s right there on the yard signs: “Professional Manager, Not a Politician.”…

If you value expertise and professionalism as I do, that can sound alluring.

Until you see how it actually works.

Until a city hires someone with so little experience that it had to reduce its job requirements in the middle of the search process in order to even consider her. Until a city hires someone it’s willing to reduce its job requirements for because of what can be seen only as political reasons.

Teresa Wilson had been an assistant city manager just 18 months when the Columbia City Council named her city manager in January. She had worked for the city less than six years, and most of her work there and elsewhere was in government relations, which is a fancy term for lobbyist.

Her predecessor, Steve Gantt, had a resume closer to what the professional-manager advocates advocate, but even he had been an assistant manager just seven years, and had worked before that in private construction.

Before him we had Charles Austin, who may have been a fine police chief but was Peter Principled into the city manager job by council members who needed to make a quick decision and thought his popularity could serve to their political advantage. He actually did a better job than should have been expected, but in the end it was clear that this wasn’t the sort of job he was trained to do.

On paper, Leona Plaugh was precisely what the professionalism advocates had in mind. But she was forced out after just 18 months in the wake of a series of heavy-handed moves that included an attempt to muzzle City Council members who were criticizing her…

Ms. Plaugh, now a member of the City Council and one of the most vocal opponents of strong mayor, opposed hiring Ms. Wilson, saying she wasn’t experienced enough for the job. And yet, there she is…

To believe in the “professional manager” myth, you have to “set aside what we know about the Columbia City Council’s track record with city managers.”

But even if all the “professional managers” were ideal,, government should not be run by an unelected executive.

I urge you to go read the whole column.

Police association endorses strong mayor

I’m not entirely sure what I make of this release from Adam Fogle:

Police Officers endorse Strong Mayor

COLUMBIA, SC – Police officers from the local Columbia Chapter of the Southern States Police Benevolence Association (PBA) on Monday joined Columbia Mayor Steve Benjamin to announce their support for the Strong Mayor form of government and encourage residents to “Vote YES” in the upcoming December 3 referendum.

“We fully support this change not only for police officers but for the safety of the people we have sworn to protect, the people of Columbia,” said PBA President Joseph Czeladko. “This change would hold Mayor Benjamin accountable and not having that accountability has led to stagnation at the very foundation of this city – public safety.”

This morning’s announcement was held in front of The Library Bar which has become a symbol of recent violence in the popular Five Points entertainment district as well as gang activity in Columbia as a whole after Richland County Sheriff Leon Lott identified it as a central hangout for gang members in the area and conducted a gang and narcotics operation in the area earlier this month.

Sheriff Lott said he did not coordinate the operation with Columbia Police because Interim Police Chief Ruben Santiago did not have authority to participate without first getting permission from his multiple bosses.

“When the Sheriff has to come down to Five Points to close down a known gang hangout, the system is broken,” said Mayor Benjamin. “When the Chief of Police can’t do his job without going through multiple levels of approval, the system is broken. When the Chief can’t even hire his own command staff unless the Assistant City Manager and City Manager sign off, the system is broken”

“The system is broken here in Five Points. It’s broken in North Columbia and the Colony, It’s broken all across this city and it’s about time we did something about it.”

Voters will have that opportunity by voting “YES” for a stronger, safer city on December 3.

Here are some of the questions I have about this endorsement:

  • When your argument is that law enforcement is messed up, are the cops somebody you want endorsing your argument?
  • Is the mayor taking a position against present management in the police department (the questions he raises seem to cut both ways), and is this organization endorsing that position?
  • OK, so a significant chunk of city employees — whom you might be expected to lean toward status quo — endorse the change. But… do we want city employees, especially cops, taking such a political position?

Nathan Ballentine proposes solution for violent crime in Columbia: Sheriff Leon Lott

At the risk of seeming even more like a guy who thinks of himself as the Editorial Page Editor in Exile, allow me to call your attention to a second good piece on the opinion pages of The State today.

You should read Rep. Nathan Ballentine’s piece promoting Richland County Sheriff Leon Lott as the guy who can lead Columbia to solutions in dealing with its violent crime problem. An excerpt:

The answer to Columbia’s violent crime isn’t what, but who

Recently, the Midlands has seen a dramatic rise in gang violence and senseless shootings. Business leaders, elected officials, USC’s administration and many others have sought answers to the big question: What can we do to stop it? College students, victims’ groups and law enforcement officials all have met and pondered the same question: How can we combat violent crime?

Sheriff Leon Lott

Sheriff Leon Lott

There may not be just one answer, but I know one man who has the experience and sheer determination to find all the answers and get the job done here in Columbia: Richland County Sheriff Leon Lott.

In the past, Columbia City Council has been reluctant to cede power to Sheriff Lott, apparently because of small turf battles and out of fear that council members might lose some control over the law enforcement they currently manage….

For many of us, the answer is clear: have Sheriff Lott take over control of city law enforcement efforts and allocate resources where he knows they will best be utilized, city or county. To do anything less is simply sanctioning further violence throughout Columbia.

Leon Lott is a unique individual who transcends politics and has a record of achievement…

Some may be surprised to see a conservative Republican lawmaker — one of Gov. Nikki Haley’s oldest and best friends in the House — praising a Democratic sheriff to the skies. Such people don’t know Nathan Ballentine very well. He will work with anyone, D or R, whom he sees as able to get the job done.

Others, unfortunately, will dismiss this as a white legislator (a Republican, no less — and from Chapin!) promoting a white lawman to ride in and show a town with a black mayor, black city manager and a series of minority police chiefs how to make Five Points safe for white college kids. Not that anyone will put it quite that bluntly, but there may be such a reaction, on the part of some, to that effect.

People who react that way will not be reassured by Nathan pointing out that Sheriff Lott was way out ahead of the city in recognizing the community’s gang problem, and doing something about it. That has long been a touchy subject along the demographic fault line in Columbia, with (and yes, I’m deliberately oversimplifying to make a point) white folks saying of course there’s a gang problem, and black folks saying, you white people see a “gang” wherever two or more young, black males congregate.

Setting race aside, some will react at the “great man theory” that underlies the Ballentine piece — the idea that this sheriff, this man, is the one to do the job. What happens, they’ll say, when Lott is no longer sheriff?

In other words, the barrier to communication runs a little deeper than “small turf battles.” Although that’s a part of it, too. There are multiple reasons why this hasn’t happened already.

There’s an opportunity here. Mayor Steve Benjamin has just gotten re-elected by a strong margin, and he has floated the idea of Lott taking over before. With the strong-mayor vote coming up the potential for change is in the air — although it’s tough to say whether the Lott idea has a better or a worse chance in light of that. (Better if it makes people more willing to give the major more power, worse if they say, if a strong mayor doesn’t run the police department, what’s the point?)

If he takes this up again, Benjamin has the political chops and stature to override a lot (if not all) of the gut-level objections out there, as well as the bureaucratic ones.

Is it doable? I don’t know. But letting the sheriff elected to serve the whole county actually run law enforcement for the whole county is an idea that deserves a full and fair hearing.

‘Power Failure’ problems still plague South Carolina

Yesterday, at Jack Van Loan‘s gathering for Steve Benjamin, the mayor at one point — in talking about the strong-mayor system — invoked “Power Failure.”

He does that frequently when I’m around, which causes me to think he does it to flatter me. But he always does it relevantly. For those who don’t know what “Power Failure” was, a brief description that I put together recently:

South Carolina is different. It took me about three years of close observation to understand how it was different. I realized it toward the end of the incredible summer of 1990, when one-tenth of the Legislature was indicted, the head of the highway patrol resigned under pressure after helping the head of the local FBI office (which was investigating the Legislature) with a DUI, the president of the University of South Carolina resigned after a series of scandals, and… well, there were two or three other major stories of malfunction and corruption in state government, all at the same time. Under my direction, The State’s political reporters stayed ahead of all the competition that summer, and broke at least one story that even the feds didn’t know about. All this fed into my determination to explain just why our state government was so fouled up. There were reasons, and they were reasons that were peculiar to South Carolina, but they were invisible to most citizens.

I proposed to The State’s senior management that they let me undertake a special project that would let the voters in on the secret. They agreed, and turned the resources of the newsroom over to me to use as I needed them for the “Power Failure” project. Over the course of a year, 17 multi-page installments and more than 100 stories, we explained why ours was the state government that answered to no one. And we set out a blueprint for fixing it.

That helped lead, the following year, to a major government restructuring, creating a cabinet system and giving the governor actual control over a significant portion of the executive branch. It didn’t go nearly far enough. Only about a third of the government, measured by share of the budget, answers to the elected chief executive. But it was a start…

As it happens, I had occasion today to look back at a reprint of the series, and I continue to be struck by how relevant it remains.

The series was about much more than the fact that the state’s executive branch was governed by a bewildering array of boards and commissions that answered to no one. It was about more than making the governor accountable. It went into problems with local government, the judiciary, and other aspects of government at all levels.

The sad thing is that while that reprint is old and yellowed, being 21 years old, so much of what it described remains unchanged.

I was reminded of that in this morning’s paper. We see that a Nikki Haley ally is planning to run against Glenn McConnell for lieutenant governor next year. This is portrayed as a sort of dress-rehearsal for 2018, when the governor and lieutenant governor will run together on a single ticket. That is a tiny, tiny movement toward the “Power Failure” recommendation that we stop electing all these constitutional officers separately from the governor.

Meanwhile, the bill to replace the Budget and Control Board with a Department of Administration answering to the governor hovers out there, and maybe, maybe it will actually be enacted in the next legislative session. Nikki Haley has been pushing hard for that since entering office. Rival Vincent Sheheen has been pushing for it longer than that, and he still is doing so. From a Sheheen op-ed last week:

Government restructuring is Job No. 1

BY VINCENT SHEHEEN 

Posted: Thursday, October 3, 2013 12:01 a.m.

Post & Courier·

  • It’s time to take another giant step in reforming South Carolina’s state government to improve accountability for the hardworking people of our state.

Over the last few years, South Carolina has gone backwards in so many areas — we’re now one of the toughest places in the nation to earn a living and achieve the American dream, while our government has failed on its most basic functions. But one of the places where we are moving forward is in modernizing our state government in an effort to improve accountability.

Last year, I introduced S. 22, a restructuring bill to overhaul and reform South Carolina’s legislative and executive branches. I worked across the aisle to ensure the bill speedily passed the Senate with overwhelming bipartisan support. Then it was altered and passed late in the session by the House of Representatives.

A conference committee has been appointed to hammer out the differences in anticipation of the upcoming session. So now we have an exciting opportunity to reconcile the two versions and make history for our state….

Actually, you should probably go read the whole thing, at the Post and Courier.

The reprint is old and yellowed, but we’re still struggling along with the same problems. Still, let’s celebrate what we can. I for one am thankful that both Haley and Sheheen back reform, and that maybe this one change is about to happen. Beyond that, there’s a lot more work to do.