Which will it be, Columbia
voters: ‘right’ or ‘effective’?
By Brad Warthen
Editorial Page Editor
CHALLENGER Kevin Fisher talks a lot about Columbia Mayor Bob Coble. He criticizes, in great detail, a long litany of actions and inactions by the mayor. He talks about how he would have done things differently.
The ad and PR man says that rather than lead, “Mayor Bob” sits around waiting for consensus to emerge. “He is a very nice man who makes no decision, or who makes the wrong decision, which amounts to the same thing.”
“His main concern is, never offend anyone.” By contrast, says Mr. Fisher, “I will be looking to set the agenda and the tone.”
“With or without a strong-mayor system,” he asserts, “I would be a strong mayor.”
That, boiled down, is Kevin Fisher’s position as candidate for mayor in the April 4 election.
For his part, Mayor Coble agrees that he values diplomacy. That’s because you don’t get much done “if you tell people what you think about them every single time.”
I was once told that someday I would have to decide whether I wanted to be right or effective. There is no doubt which paths these two have chosen. Mr. Fisher is a passionate and articulate advocate of what he believes is right. He seems to have given much less thought as to how, going forward, to get things done.
Mayor Coble is far less concerned about getting everyone to see things his way. He claims to be effective.
The mayor has his own litanies. There is his list of “strategic accomplishments.” He says that during his 16-year tenure, the city reversed a long decline in home ownership, population and property values; became “far safer”; experienced a “renaissance” from the Vista to a transformed stretch of Two Notch Road, and much more; embraced the “knowledge economy,” building on a much-improved relationship with the University of South Carolina; and did it all with only two property tax increases, of two mils each, both for more police.
His main goals for the future:
- Build upon existing economic pillars, such as Fort Jackson.
- Follow through on the “innovation economy.”
- Keep improving “livability,” so “people will want to stay here and come here.”
- Change the city’s form of government to make it more effective and accountable.
In an interview last week, Mr. Fisher did not present a list of specific proposals for the future, beyond saying he would not repeat such past mistakes as:
- An “attempted waste of 41 million tax dollars” on a city-owned hotel. It would take “unmitigated gall” to seek re-election “if I had presided over that,” he said.
- The plan to block the view of the river with a development at the corner of Gervais and Huger. “If you put a nine-story building on Huger, you don’t have a Vista.”
- Deciding to back Marvin Chernoff’s vision for an arts festival. “Where is that money going to come from? And what else could it have gone to pay for?”
“Of course, the mayor is for it,” he says of one thing after another he criticizes. “Being for everything is not leadership, and the mayor is absolutely for everything.”
Mr. Coble, in the context of talking about candidates for City Council, said, “At the debates, they at least have said what they would do if elected. I don’t think Kevin has done that…. It’s one thing to say, ‘I wouldn’t do Air South,’ et cetera. What would you do? I think that’s essential to govern.”
(The third candidate on the ballot, Five Points businessman Joe Azar, agrees with the mayor on that, if on nothing else.)
Indeed, Mr. Fisher’s eloquence tends to falter if you ask, “What would you do now?” An example:
He says a “compliant mayor” gave SCE&G a cheap way out of its century-old promise to provide public transit in exchange for rights to the Columbia market.
“We let them out of that deal for what — for a few million dollars, which is already gone,” he complains. “They still have the monopoly, but we don’t have the mass transit.”
He says the utility fobbed old equipment and a “brownfield” bus barn onto the city. Since then, “Routes have been cut back; fares have been raised. We’re getting less service for more money, and it’s still going out of business.” And how is the mayor proposing to keep it going? A new tax.
After Mr. Fisher had gone on a while about that “horrendous deal,” Associate Editor Warren Bolton asked what, given the current situation, he would do. He seemed less certain about that. He said he would “allocate funds better,” and pursue federal money. “Finally, I would go back to SCE&G and try to cajole them, shame them, whatever word you want to use, into making an annual contribution.”
If the utility declined such a do-over, Mr. Fisher says, he would turn to a dedicated tax source. But “that would be the legacy of Mayor Coble and the council.”
Mayor Coble seems to accept that ultimately, the public will have to pay to have a public transit system, just like in every other city in the country. His own ruminations on the subject center around strategies for passing the necessary referendum to do that.
Another example: Regarding the former state prison property that has stood vacant for more than a decade, the mayor is pleased that — thanks in part to the Vista and riverfront having become so much more desirable — the private sector was finally willing to take it off the city’s hands. He sees that as best.
For his part, Mr. Fisher says it was a “tremendous missed opportunity” not to have left part of the prison standing. “Cellblock One was our Alcatraz,” a potentially huge attraction for tourists from all over who would come to be regaled with “the legends of Pee Wee Gaskins and the rest.”
The mayor just marvels at an idea “so far out of left field. A Pee Wee Gaskins museum would never have made it.”
So, Mr., Mrs. and Ms. Columbia Voter, which will it be — the guy who says he’s right, or the guy who says he’s effective? You’ve got 16 days to decide.