An op-op-ed from the editor

Some quick, friendly rebuttals to the Rev. Wiley Cooper’s op-ed piece today:

  • We don’t just want a "czar" for the city. We want one for the state, too. This isn’t some whim on our part, but something we’ve called for consistently on the state and local levels for years now. We see the weakness of mayors and governors in South Carolina as a key reason why we’re still last where we want to be first, and first where we want to be last.
  • "Czar?" Give us a break, Wiley! We’re talking about the basic concept of letting the executive run the executive functions of government, and letting the legislative body
    (in this case, the Council) set broad policy and pass laws (or ordinances). Call us crazy, but we see no point in electing executives if they don’t have the power to act effectively as executives. And note that last: We would have elections, you know. Unlike with czars, the position would not be hereditary.
  • The business analogy is completely off (aside from the fact that comparing government to business is one of the greatest fallacies in contemporary political rhetoric). Businesses have clearly defined, separate roles for directors and company officers. And that’s what we want here.
  • Note that none of the examples cited of cities that function well under a council-manager form are in South Carolina. One of the reasons we need a mayor empowered to run the city is because South Carolina cities face obstacles that communities in North Carolina and other states don’t face — such as weak annexation laws. The de facto city of Columbia is split into about 10 municipalities, two counties, between five and seven school districts (depending on how you define the area). Why? Because it’s hard to redraw city limits out to where the people and the development are going. And when you try, you end up with a feud between warring municipalities (note the spat between Columbia and Irmo over the shoestring annexation of Columbiana). Until we loosen annexation laws, get rid of special purpose districts, and do a number of other things we’ve been calling for for over a decade to throw off the chains that bind local government, we will particularly need strong leadership in the stunted arrondissement that is de jure Columbia. We have enough other handicaps without that one.
  • The central argument here is a complete non sequitur. I keep hearing this one over and over from defenders of the stagnant status quo: Just because someone is a good visionary leader who has the political skills to get elected doesn’t mean he or she can be an effective, day-to-day administrator. Well, who’s arguing with that? Of course a strong mayor would hire good people to work under him and do the things he can’t do in a 24-hour day — or that he (or she) lacks the skills to do. Call that assistant (or more likely, assistants) a chief of staff, or an operations officer, or even, if you like, "city manager." Just as long as that person answers only to the mayor — and not to a committee of seven — effective, accountable government will be possible.
  • Democracy is messy, and what I don’t understand is why opponents of this change fear it so. They don’t trust the people to elect a good, honest mayor who is actually empowered to run the city from day to day. They raise the spectre of corrupt political bosses. Yes, democracy demands of the voters a great responsibility to choose someone of ability and integrity. Let’s give them a chance.
  • Finally, I must note that Rev. Cooper is to be commended for his long-time, passionate dedication to his local neighborhood association. We need more citizens as civic-minded as he. But as we will discuss on Friday’s editorial page, neighborhood associations are among the main interests resisting a common vision for the city being implemented by a strong executive.

Rev. Cooper has his legitimately and sincerely held view of what’s best for the community, and we have ours. We think ours is based in a broader definition of the community, but he honestly disagrees. That’s what we have the op-ed page for.

4 thoughts on “An op-op-ed from the editor

  1. David

    Accountability to the voters is what will drive improvement. That accountability is certainly lacking now. Government by definition is in the service business but many (not all) workers do not feel obligated to serve the public. Take the post office (a quasi-government agency), where I live they don’t open until 8:30 a.m. and lock the doors at 5 PM sharp. This in spite of the fact that the vast majority of the public who work cannot be there after 8:30 or before 5. But, enter free enterprise, re the UPS and Fedex. If it were not for that competition, how much worse would the service be? So how do you introduce free market forces into the city of Columbia. One way, outsourcing functions to private industry.

  2. Rudy Barnes, Jr.

    As a former member of Columbia City Council, I was recently invited by the SC Municipal Assn to give them my opinion on this issue. What I told them was remarkably similar to Wiley Cooper’s editorial piece.
    The problem with leadership in Columbia–if there is a problem–has little to do with the form of government, but much to do with those holding office. I had the privilege of serving with Kirkman Finley, and during his tenure I heard no one complain of lack of leadership in the city. Kirkman and I had our disagreements over policy, but I never questioned the quality of his leadership; it was the kind of leadership that Columbia needed then and needs today. Changing the form of government so that a professional politician rather than a professional administrator runs the city will not solve Columbia’s problems, but only exacerbate them.
    My thanks to Wiley Cooper for saying it like it is.

  3. Emily

    Just thought you’d be interested to add to your Richmond stories of 9/21: Guess what other city has a strong mayor form of government? New Orleans!

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