Letter I: Riley a stumbling block to reform opponents

One point I'd like to make with regard to this letter on today's page, which takes exception with our advocacy of a strong-mayor system for Columbia, most recently articulated in our Sunday editorial:

City’s government should remain as is

I read
The State’s Sunday editorial, “City should change system, not hire
another manager,” with dismay concerning your recommendation that
Columbia change its form of government.

Choosing a strong-mayor
form over the council-manager system could have dangerous consequences
for the city. These involve the likely emergence of a cult of
personality and abuse of power by individual council members.

in the 20th century, the council-manager system was formulated (some
say for the first time in Sumter) to bring professionalism to city
administration and to distance politics from the daily operation of
municipal functions.

Overall, the hiring of professional managers
to carry out council policy has been successful. Even cities as large
as Dallas have city managers. Philadelphia has a strong-mayor form of

Selecting the strong-mayor form would be ill-advised
because a less-than-stellar mayor (after all, how many Joe Rileys are
there in South Carolina?) could make matters much worse.

is now seeking a professional manager and then should work to ensure
that he implements goals of efficient and effective government while
letting council set policy.

West Columbia

There is one thing that opponents of strong-mayor always have to confront when they try to dismiss the idea: Joe Riley. They always have to say, "There's only one Joe Riley," or "Joe Rileys don't grow on trees," or "Joe Riley isn't going to move to Columbia."

Why do they have to say that? Because, when they look around for examples to support their point, if they were to say, "Why, look at the only other major city in South Carolina that has a strong mayor," they would immediately have to say, "No, DON'T look at the only other major city in S.C. with a strong mayor," because in that city, the system is a generally acknowledge success. And by generally acknowledged, I mean that Charleston gets all sort of national recognition for being a well-run, well-led city. And while Mr. Riley always has opposition (which you would expect a Democrat to have in a city with so very many Republicans in it), he wins re-election time and again with about three-fourths of the vote.

No, Joe Riley is NOT going to move to Columbia (he decided that for good when he decided not to run for governor in 1998, which was a terrible shame for our state). But let me tell you something just about as certain — if there is another Joe Riley out there, he isn't going to run for mayor of Columbia unless we make the job worth running for. And right now, it isn't.

Yes, folks, I know that council-manager was considered a "reform" when it came along, an alternative to bossism and the like. So was, in its day, the city commission form, which I had the opportunity of studying up close and personal in Jackson, TN, long ago.

But look around you: This system is NOT WORKING, and it has not worked under the last several city managers. The city is a mess, and no one can be held accountable for fixing it. Each member of the council (including the mayor, who has no more say than any other member) can point to the other six and claim, quite truthfully, that he or she lacks the power to do anything without a majority.

So everybody skates when we have the kind of mess we have now, except for the city managers that come and go.

This needs to change. And the first step is putting someone accountable to the voters in charge.

16 thoughts on “Letter I: Riley a stumbling block to reform opponents

  1. Doug Ross

    > . Each member of the council (including the
    > mayor, who has no more say than any other
    > member) can point to the other six and
    > claim, quite truthfully, that he or she
    > lacks the power to do anything without a
    > majority.
    But wait… these people are our elected representatives who are supposed to be there to advance the causes that all of us communitarians hold dear. Why aren’t they all working together to do what’s right for everybody? What could possibly stop them from doing a good job and being held accountable?
    I hate it when reality trumps idealism.

  2. Brad Warthen

    I strongly suspect that one or two of them, and possibly a majority, are not communitarians. How they snuck in, I don’t know.
    Doug, you definitely should pick at my communitarianism, while I’m on that kick (inspired by the Obama inaugural address, so don’t blame me for starting it). That’s what we’re here for.
    But look at all of what I say. Do I believe that our wonderful system of representative democracy, which with all its warts is the best system yet devised? You betcha (AHHH! Who said that!?!).
    And I’m also a huge believer in other aspects bequeathed to us by Madison and those other geniuses, such as separation of powers and checks and balances.
    There should be a separate elected executive balancing, and balanced by the legislative body (in the case, the council) — someone held accountable for executing policy just as the council is responsible for drafting it. We utterly lack that now. Instead, we have a hired hand who reports to seven people.
    V.O. Key famously wrote in 1949 that what many anti-Federalist types had expected — that a strong executive would be a kinglike tyrant — had been turned on its head. He wrote, “By a curious reversal of roles in the history of parliaments, representative institutions in the United States have, on the whole, become defenders of vested interests; and chief executives, the tribunes of the people. Apparently the great tides of sentiment moving the masses have freer play in the mechanisms for the choice of chief executives than in elections of legislators from small districts.”
    He’s right. A legislative body is a great thing for balancing many different views and interests, but it’s a lousy one for coherence or accountability. That’s because a voter only gets to choose, at most, two legislators (out of 170 in South Carolina). But everyone gets a say in picking the governor. You need a system that is balanced between those separate foci of power, and we do not have that in South Carolina.
    Ditto on the local level.

  3. Doug Ross

    Then the question becomes “what incentive does any sitting representative have to give up any power?”
    Without term limits, we won’t see change in the government of this state during our lifetime.
    Put term limits on the ballot and let the people decide.

  4. bud

    However the mechanisms are supposed to work the process for selecting our governor has not made for good decisions on his part in the past. I think it’s a good thing the governor has very little power. Just think how much mischief he could cause if given a huge amount of power. The more I think about this the less I like the idea of a cabinet form of government. History just does not bode well for the success of such a system in South Carolina. I say just leave it alone and work within the current framework to improve on the effectiveness of SC government.

  5. Brad Warthen

    bud, you know what the biggest, most glaring failure of the half-arsed (actually, I should say, third-arsed) restructuring of 1993 is?

    It’s the low quality of the governors we’ve had since then: Beasley, Hodges, Sanford. All disappointments. None as focused on improving state government or effective as Dick Riley or Carroll Campbell.

    You know whose fault that is? Ours. We, the people. (Especially those who voted in the Democratic primary and runoff in 1994, when Joe Riley lost by less than one vote per precinct to Nick Theodore. Riley would have made the most of what little leverage the restructuring of 93 provided — he had a great grasp of what was wrong in our state government, and how to go about fixing it — while Nick was the one candidate the Democrats could have chosen who would make Beasley look good.)

    By the way, bud and I have gone back and forth about what the 1993 initiative did and didn’t do. It occurs to me that it might be useful to share what I wrote about it at the time:

    State, The (Columbia, SC) – Sunday, June 20, 1993
    Author: BRAD WARTHEN . Warthen was editor of the Power Failure series

    In 1992, South Carolina missed the chance of a century.

    The people of the state almost got to vote, straight up or down, on whether to replace a 300-year-old form of government designed by a narrow elite to keep the rest of us down — and which had done that one job shockingly well.

    The state Senate made sure the issue of creating a modern Cabinet government never made it to the ballot.

    This year, reformers in the House somehow found the will and determination to try again. They came up with a plan that in some respects was as good as the one nearly offered to the voters the first time.

    But it still had to pass the Senate. So what we got was a compromise.

    The Legislature did for a third of the state’s agencies what should have been done for all of them. Some of the areas left out — such as the administration of schools and universities, and the scandal hatchery called the highway department — are astounding in light of the many ways those agencies have failed.

    And nothing has been done to loosen the Legislature’s iron grip on the judicial branch.

    Compromise, we are often told, is the great glory of legislative government. There is no solution so mild that a lawmaker can’t water it down and make it less effective.

    In this case, you could look upon South Carolina as a pneumonia patient. Every physician consulted has prescribed 300 milligrams of antibiotics, but the Legislature has said, “Give her 100, and let’s call her cured.”

    In 1991, The State spent most of the year explaining in great detail why government doesn’t work in South Carolina. There was a lot to explain. It took nearly 150 articles, spread over 17 installments. The effort was called “Power Failure: The government that answers to no one.”

    Power Failure reflected the best thoughts of a myriad of past and present South Carolina officeholders, political scientists, consultants and citizens of all stripes — people who knew how the state’s government had failed its people.

    It ended with a set of resolutions, based on all that collected wisdom. There was nothing startling about them. With regard to the executive branch of government, the recommendation was simple and matched the conclusion of eight independent studies conducted since 1920 — to gather the 145 separate and independent agencies together and make them accountable to someone elected by all the state’s people, the governor.

    By the standards of the Power Failure resolutions, the restructuring of 1993 falls far short. It reduced fragmentation somewhat, but ultimately failed to drastically simplify government.

    But by the standards of the South Carolina Legislature, it is a stunning achievement.

    The idea guiding Power Failure was always to connect government clearly and directly for the first time to its sole legitimate power source — the people — enabling voters to express at the ballot box which way they want government to go, and creating a structure that would make it possible for government to get itself together and go that way.

    Portions of government are now hitched more closely to the public will. And while it’s far from what is needed, more progress has been made in that direction in these past few months than in the past century. There’s a lot left to do, but reason to believe it will get done. The spirit of reform is now abroad in the land.

    Another reason to hope is a fact that is often easy to forget: that there are thousands of fine, dedicated public servants in state government, who daily do their best by their fellow citizens, and some of them are in the Legislature itself.

    The problem is and always has been that the hoary political culture of this state, and the organizational structure that both reflects and supports it, frustrates the best efforts of these good people.

    That culture is not without its champions, and although they are not all in the Senate, their battle cry was expressed well on a bumper sticker that made its appearance when the House sent its restructuring plan across the lobby this year: “The Senate . . . Now More Than Ever!”

    That slogan might seem rather nonsensical, but it comes into sharper focus if you read what political scientist V.O  . Key  wrote about some South Carolina senators in 1949:

    “In legislation they adhere generally to a conservative policy, yielding a bit here and there, as may be strategically necessary, to the forces demanding change. They are keenly conscious of their role in defense of the status quo and equally aware that they are fighting a delaying action.”

    Within a generation after Key wrote those words, the ability of a small group of senators to rule this state through an informal network of personal connections (the basic principle underpinning what is called the Legislative State) had seriously eroded.

    The first, small steps toward dismantling the Legislative State were taken in the 1970s. The forces Key described resisted, of course. In the 1990s, they’ve resisted the first efforts to create something to replace the Legislative State.

    But they’re fighting a rear-guard action.

    The restructuring of 1993 has shown that fundamental, constructive change is possible in South Carolina, despite what has so often been said about our state.

    And this is only the beginning.

    UNFORTUNATELY, I was no profit on that last point. That was the END so far, as lawmakers — no longer goaded and demoralized by recent electoral memory of Lost Trust — have adamantly refused to take any more steps in the direction of reform.

    But it WAS just the beginning of our pushing for it. We’re still pushing like mad. And still hoping, after all these years.

  6. bud

    That was the END so far, as lawmakers — no longer goaded and demoralized by recent electoral memory of Lost Trust — have adamantly refused to take any more steps in the direction of reform.
    Thank goodness for that. The disaster of the 1992 restructuring was enough of a bad thing.

  7. Lee Muller

    Mark Sanford is a businessman, self-made millionaire, experienced in banking, investment banking, venture capital for new companies, and real estate development.
    His problem is the legislature full of hayseed small-town lawyers who couldn’t make a living just being lawyers, but who get rich using their influence. The foremost thought in their minds is, “How do I increase my power, in order to make my influence more valuable to my clients?”
    When someone who truly sacrifices their career in business, engineering, education, or medicine runs and is elected, they are marginalized by the career legislators, even the ones in their own party.

  8. Lee Muller

    If you don’t KNOW Sanford’s resume, you should refrain from insulting his ability, until you get up to speed on the subject.
    What makes you think Bobby Harrell or John Land is more qualified than Mark Sanford? What have they ever done outside of politics? Do they have any business or technical expertise?

  9. KP

    Sounds that way to me too. Sanford is a self-made inheritor, is what he is.
    I’m with Bud on this one. And I don’t think you answered the major hole in your argument for more control by the governor. If we’ve had sorry governors for the past 15 years, culminating in the worst governor in anyone’s lifetime, and it’s our own fault, why, as long as we’re not likely to change much, would we want the governor to have more control?
    South Carolinians would vote for Mark Sanford AGAIN if they had the chance. That’s the best argument I can think of for not giving the governor any more power than he has.

  10. Lee Muller

    The only thing Mark Sanford and his supporters want is more honesty and open processes in government, and to stop wasting money on so many useless projects for special interest groups.
    In the last 4 years, the legislature has squandered over $3 BILLION of surplus tax revenues which they could have used to pay off debt, or buy necessary things. This year, they still are spending $100,000,000 more than last year, and call it a “shortfall” or “deficit”, or “budget crisis”.
    The simple reality is that government at all levels has grown faster than the private sector, and it sapped all the cash out of the economy. Excess government caused this recession, and the previous recessions.
    Now the legislators are spending more money they don’t have as their solution, to “stimulate” the economy that they poisoned with excess spending.

  11. Brad Warthen

    Bobby Harrell is in bidness — insurance, I want to say.
    John Land is a lawyer — practices workers’ comp law, I think, which is a whole ‘nother set of problems in terms of conflict of interest.
    With our gov you don’t have to worry about a business conflict. To my knowledge, he has not worked in the private sector since he was elected to Congress in 1994.
    When he came in to see us when he was beginning his run for gov, I asked what he’d been doing since leaving Washington. “Nothing,” he said — hanging with the boys and such. Which is great if you can swing it. I never could. To paraphrase Sgt. Hulka in “Stripes,” I always had to WORK for a livin’.
    And always in the private sector, I might add. Which means that I’ve seen a lot of stuff that causes me to be somewhat less impressed with the vaunted private sector than our gov is — I’ve actually spent a lot more time in it.
    And as it happens, my private sector job has usually been largely concerned with keeping a close eye on gummint. And based on that experience, I can tell you with a great deal of confidence that neither the private nor the public sector has a the corner on virtue, wisdom, or efficiency.

  12. Lee Muller

    Eell, Brad, I think you have not keep a close eye on government. Or maybe you just like all the cancerous growth and corruption, or think taxpayers shouldn’t expect any better. Rampant waste and theft are just the price we pay for a few legitimate services.
    Business attracts a lot smarter and better class of person than does government. The only way to get rich in government is to steal. When you see someone come out of government “service” lots wealthier than when they entered, or immediately become rich from lobbying, writing and speaking tours, you KNOW they sold you out.
    The swindling we see in business today, like the bankers and Wall Street swindlers, were all made possible by crooks in government colluding with them, or just being too lazy to follow up complaints of dishonesty.
    Would you like a list of examples from the headlines?

  13. Brad Warthen

    Lee, my business is providing you with those headlines. And you will ALWAYS know FAR more about waste and corruption and just plain foolishness in government than you will about all of the same in the private sector, because a) so much of what happens in the private sector is hidden from us (and should be, compared to government, which has a far greater obligation to account us — the difference, in fact, in the obligation to transparency is like night and day); and b) we in the media see it as our JOB to hold government accountable, far, far, FAR more than we see any sort of obligation to dig into the private sector.
    Consequently, the public gets a steady diet of problems in government from us, and a tiny trickle of problems in the private sector. Something has to go off like an atom bomb in the private sector (such as the crashes of the big financial houses on Wall Street) to get the kind of scrutiny we give to somebody not doing his job right at City Hall.
    If you look around and ask who is most responsible for the anti-government sentiment that you and so many others hold, the culprit is us. We made you see the world this way. And the thing is, we’ll keep on doing that — until our business model completely collapses (which it is working like crazy to do, by the way). Because we see it as our job to keep on calling government to account.

  14. h

    This thread got really boring after brad quoted an entire article in his COMMENT. Please do not quote entire articles. A LINK will do.

  15. Lee Muller

    Brad, you newspaper doesn’t even publish the contents of bills. You might print a shallow article after the vote is a done deal.
    The State didn’t bother to publish any of the details of this $825,000,000,000 Pelosi Pork spending bill.
    We have to get the details on the Internet, from the Congressional Budget Office, Heritage Foundation, Cato Institute, and maybe a real paper like the Wall Street Journal.
    That’s why newspapers like yours are irrelevant – you don’t show up for work.


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