No juice, no Joe

There’s no either/or:
Without the system,
you don’t get the man

“Charleston will not put up with inefficiency. We’ve been efficient too long.”
                 — Charleston District 7
                     City Councilman
                     Louis L. Waring

“I go to bed thinking about something that needs to get done for the city, and I start my day with it.”
                  — Charleston Mayor
                      Joseph P. Riley Jr.

THE PROBLEM with Joe Riley is that he’s too good at his job. This gives defenders of the status quo in Columbia an excuse to say Charleston’s success is because of the man, not the system. Therefore, they say, there’s no point in ditching Columbia’s useless council-manager form of government for the strong-mayor system that Mr. Riley embodies.
    So Mayor Riley came up from Charleston Wednesday, along with two city council members, to explain to a commission studying reform in Columbia why it’s the form of government that makes the Holy City work.
    As usual, he did a good job.
    Even to raise the question of whether it is the shape of the job or the quality of the individual whoTestify_011 fills it is to miss the point. Charleston’s is the only form of city government that could attract a Joe Riley. A person with the abilities to lead a city forward will only run for a job in which he can make full use of those abilities.
    “I certainly wouldn’t have,” said Mr. Riley when asked by panelist Dalhi Myers whether he would have been interested in the job had it been weaker. “What gets me up in the morning,” he said, “is not a ribbon I cut, but that I accomplish something of importance for my city.”
    “The achievement of getting elected ends pretty soon after the election,” he said. “After that, it’s getting things done.”
    There are, of course, people for whom the honor of being elected to a nothing job — such as lieutenant governor, or Columbia mayor — is more than enough. But it takes a job like Charleston’s to attract an actual leader: “Make it a job that has the capacity and authority,” said Mr. Riley, and “you make it more appealing” to qualified people.
    “Good point,” Columbia attorney Benton Williamson said under his breath. He was sitting next to me at the back of the hearing room. “It’s the point,” I muttered.
    None of the other common objections to strong-mayor stood up to scrutiny:

  • The “professionalism” issue. There is an antidemocratic school of thought that a city is best run by an unelected professional administrator. Mr. Riley provided the obvious answer to that: “How it works is, you hire good people.” Why do advocates of this objection assume voters wouldn’t demand that the mayor they elect hire just the kind of “professionals” that those advocates say they want? Whom do you hold accountable if a city manager hired by seven council members is a dud? Mayor Riley chooses his department heads, and they are ratified by the council. “Many of my department heads have the ability to be city managers,” he said.
  • The “bossism” worry. The city manager system was created as a reform long ago in response to mayors who had too much unchecked power. But with Freedom of Information laws and aggressive media, “Government is very transparent now,” Mr. Riley noted. Besides, the Charleston council is empowered to rein in the mayor if necessary.
  • Cronyism. If you rely on democracy to identify your city leader, how do you keep that person from staffing the city’s departments with unqualified pals and political backers? First, Mr. Riley said, “I don’t discuss politics with my department heads.” When he goes to hire them, “Everybody is going to know their backgrounds, and city council approves them.”
  • Neighborhoods will be neglected. This arises from the fear that if the person running the city is not an employee of council members representing districts, those areas will lose out. Councilmen Waring and Paul Tinkler said it doesn’t work that way in Charleston. If they have a problem, they go straight to city staff and get a quick response (a practice we’ve had to ban in Columbia, because it undermined the politically powerless manager). As a last resort, they go to the mayor. Mr. Waring described a problem he had with a traffic light that changed too quickly: “Within three days, there were more seconds on that light,” and it was fully synchronized with the one on the next block.

    Also, the mayor regularly meets with neighborhood groups, and makes it a point to “get back to them by letter within a week, telling them what we’re going to do, or why we can’t — in writing.” Why? Because like the council members, he needs those votes.
    In Charleston, there is no either/or. Neighborhoods and the city center are both well-served. The mayor appreciates the importance of meeting neighborhood needs, and the district representatives appreciate how a vital city center benefits them all. Everyone has had input into the master plans that guide the city. Yes, in Charleston, such things exist (see above editorial).
    At the end of the hearing, it was evident that some commission members were still dubious. Others were not: Responding to the “it only works in Charleston because they have Joe Riley” argument, Kirkman Finlay III said he doesn’t want to believe “there’s a higher quality of people in Charleston.” Seriously, do we really have such an inferiority complex in Columbia that we believe none of us can do this?
    One person did confess to an epiphany, but it was not a member of the commission: Councilman Tinkler, who had initially said he was there as neither an advocate nor an opponent of the idea that the strong-mayor system made a difference, made this statement at the end: “As I’ve sat here, it’s occurred to me that if it were not for the strong mayor form of government, we would not have” the success his city has enjoyed. He realized that was why the biggest challenge he had faced as a councilman was how to deal with “people beating down the doors to get in” to the city.
    Bottom line on strong-mayor:
    It is a system that works. What Columbia has is one that doesn’t.

6 thoughts on “No juice, no Joe

  1. Lee

    I would like some of the cheerleaders for “the strong mayor system” to tell me:
    1. What good it will do if the mayor is a weak puppet of special interest groups?
    2. What projects in Columbia failed to get pushed through that would have, and should have been, completed if we had had the perfect strong mayor?
    3. How would the crummy projects which were fortunately stopped in the past be stopped under a strong mayor?

  2. Dave

    Brad, Charleston (from this crime ranking table) ranks 78th out of the 100 largest metro areas with 100 being the worst.
    Worse yet, it is near the worst rating in murder, rape, and assaults. This is one area where a good mayor (see Rudy Giuliani) can have a direct and immediate effect. Charleston has a higher murder rate than St. Louis, Houston, or Miami for example, and Charlotte.
    I know stats can be distorted in many ways but this doesn’t cast a good light on Riley.

  3. Steve Aiken

    Question: Of the 50 states, where does South Carolina as a whole rank in overall quality of life, murder, rape and assaults?

  4. Steve Aiken

    Dave, Thanks for the info. I’m not going to comment on the relative performance of Joe Riley versus other mayors, only to point out that the mayor of any city in South Carolina is working against some big odds. I’m favorably impressed by the differences between the Charleston I saw in 1966 and the Charleston I saw in 1988.

  5. Lee

    But with Freedom of Information laws and aggressive media, “Government is very transparent now,” Mr. Riley noted.
    Riley is serving Kool-Aid.
    With toothless FOIA in S.C. which is ignored by officials, and a media which thinks the purpose of government is to build or hand out everything that no one wants to buy with their own money, it is vital that government be made less powerful.

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