City council’s strong-mayor debacle

It’s a great shame that Columbia city council voted not even to ask voters whether they would like to inject accountability into city government by moving to a strong-mayor form of government.

But it was predictable that they would do so. I feared that outcome when I saw that the council planned to vote right after a public hearing.

The proposal would have a chance put before the electorate — particularly in the fall, when a much more representative swath of the city’s voters will turn out, as compared to actual city elections.

But the kinds of people who turn up at hearings before council happens to be much the same set of people who passionately oppose such a change — even to the point, apparently, of not wanting their neighbors to have a chance to vote on it.

This is always the way. The people who are most opposed to a reform — or, to use more neutral language, a change of any kind — in the form of government are the very people most invested in the current form. And people who regularly go to council meetings tend to be people who have become comfortable with and accustomed to the current form. They’ve learned to make the existing system stand up and do what they want, so they don’t want it replaced.

I saw this on a much larger scale when we first started pressing for changing the form of state government in the early 90s. We were pushing for a more accountable system in which the will of the electorate would be more likely to be expressed in the way the executive branch of state government was run. We were seeking to replace a bewildering set of mixed-up governing arrangements that varied greatly from agency to agency (and still exists over most of state government).

The system was (and remains) far too complex and fragmented for the average citizen to understand or engage effectively. But what that meant was that the people who DID know how to make it work — experienced lawmakers, skilled bureaucrats, interest-group advocates and lobbyists — had a tremendous advantage in dealing with it. And consequently did not want it to change.

With city government, it’s more likely to be people who are very active in neighborhood associations who oppose a change that would make city administration accountable directly to one person elected citywide, rather than a hodgepodge of at-large and district representatives (with the district people having the majority).

Anyway… Columbia has missed yet another opportunity, and continues to be in the grip of a decades-long rear-guard action against progress.

A postscript… I was quite indignant that council did not wait for new members to join, since I knew that both Cameron Runyan and Moe Baddourah favored strong mayor. It seemed that anti-change incumbents were forcing a vote now to avoid losing.

But then I read in Clif LeBlanc’s report this morning, “Baddourah, who replaces Gergel, said he’s had a change of heart and would not support holding a vote this fall.”

Which really blew my mind, because I saw him on local TV news, either last night or the night before, stating his unequivocal support for strong mayor.

Clif needs to do a full, exhaustive, separate story on what in the world just happened there…

32 thoughts on “City council’s strong-mayor debacle

  1. Brad

    A point I meant to make above, but forgot about…

    City council is a highly suggestible institution. When I was editorial page editor, and wanted to take a break from beating my head against with wall with our Legislature, I’d right about a city issue, and have the gratification of seeing at LEAST a reaction, whether or not it was the one I wanted.

    Whether it’s the newspaper, or neighborhood groups, or whatever, this institution is highly responsive to outside input.

    Which sounds like a good thing, right? After all, one reason I’m always arguing for greater subsidiarity, moving decisions whenever possible down to the levels of government closest to the people, it’s because local government IS so responsive.

    But there’s such a thing as being a bit TOO suggestible.

    If I were a city councilman (and maybe the fact that I’m the way I am means I never would be), and I had studied an issue for years and come to a conclusion, you could have a thousand impassioned opponents to the idea show up at a public hearing, and (assuming they had not brought to light considerations which I had failed to examine thoroughly previously) I would thank them politely, and go ahead and vote the way I had honestly concluded was the way to go.

    Which means I probably wouldn’t be a councilman for long. But that would be fine by me — no more people calling me all hours about potholes.

  2. `Kathryn Fenner

    I believe Steve and Belinda have been strongly, consistently for a strong mayor. I suppose they knew Brian was, too, and thought they had one other vote. I’ve been at plenty of meetings where going in we thought we had 6-1 and lost 3-4, or vice versa.

    I would hope they would be open to persuasion, rather than showing up with their minds made up–why have a public hearing otherwise? Community theater?

  3. `Kathryn Fenner

    I oppose a strong mayor because we already have too much influence from wealthy business interests like Don Tomlin and Joe E. Taylor. A strong mayor is easier to influence, and it’s easier to shut out minority opinions.

    Besides, Steve Gantt is awesome!

  4. Brad

    OK, maybe that’s a bit unfair. It’s not that council members overthrew strong convictions to go with the crowd. Rather, the problem is more likely to be a lack of strong convictions on the form of government to begin with.

    After all, as I also read this morning, “Devine and Rickenmann said the push for a change was being driven largely by The State newspaper’s editorial board.”

    Those silly editorial writers — I make rude noises in their general direction! Tameika and Daniel are apparently too busy to worry about what sort of government the city should have. THAT’s the attitude…

  5. Mark Stewart

    My favorite line from yesterday’s waste was “strong mayors are for big cities.” And as the largest city in the state, Columbia is a what?

  6. Brad

    To be clear:

    1. I am open to changing my mind at any time in the face of powerful reasoning that overcomes the reasoning that led me to my previous position. I am NOT going to change my mind simply because a lot of people disagree with me. Whatever the consequences.

    2. I remember the first time someone alleged to me that strong-mayor was being pushed by Don Tomlin. I had two questions: Who the hell is Don Tomlin (this was some years ago), and what is he doing hijacking a position I’ve held for years.

    Also, I will paraphrase something Tom Friedman famously said about George W. Bush (someone for whom he harbored no admiration): Just because Don Tomlin believes it doesn’t mean it isn’t true.

    I suspect that Don Tomlin and Joe Taylor also believe that the sun will rise in the East tomorrow. I agree with them on that, too.

  7. Brad

    In other words, I’m not going to change my carefully-considered view because of who agrees with me any more than because of who disagrees with me. You’ve gotta come up with REASONS to sway me, and they’ve gotta be better than the ones I’ve heard against this idea in the past.

  8. `Kathryn Fenner

    No, Daniel and Tameika don’t want to change the form of government,and believe, I think correctly, that the State paper is pretty much driving the push for a change and that the voters don’t want it.

    Why hasn’t there been a petition drive so far? Because there aren’t 15% of the voters who want the change. Those who care about city politics are generally happy with the structure and understand how it protects the residents, especially minorities….

  9. `Kathryn Fenner

    Yeah, yeah–read it back then.

    I put a whole lot of personal time into city affairs–not as a paid onlooker, and I disagree with you.

  10. Brad

    Kathryn, good-government reforms are almost never going to bubble up from the people, as they tend to take too much studying over systems and how they work — the kind of studying that political scientists and editorial boards do.

    That’s why up-from-below populist movements like the Tea Party and Occupy tend to be long on outrage, and short on clear, workable reforms.

    Occasionally a politician will dumb-down a reform and ride that outrage, as Nikki Haley did with “transparency.” The people who voted for her considered the issue so superficially that they weren’t even bothered by her clearly expressed reluctance (very much on evidence during the campaign) to have transparency apply to HER.

    You know, if I’m not careful, you’re going to provoke me into blurting out doubts about democracy itself….

    I jest, of course. I am on record as being opposed, as were our Founders, to DIRECT democracy. The idea behind a republic is that you elect representatives to spend more time studying complex issues than each and every voter has time to do. Never mind that it doesn’t always work; it gives us a better shot than the direct kind (government by plebiscite) does.

    But on this issue, I’m actually arguing for more democratic system. Defenders of the status quo want a technocrat — a professional city manager — to be insulated from public accountability by “answering” to a hodgepodge of seven people who in turn answer to different constituencies. Which is the next worst thing to answering to no one at all.

    I want the will of the entire electorate, expressed in the form of the mayor, elected at-large, to have some change of expression in the day-to-day running of the city.

    So far from being the ivory-tower elitist here, I am actually in this instance trying to give more power to the people, and proportionally reduce the influence of insiders.

  11. `Kathryn Fenner

    “Good government reforms”? Hmmm–are you saying that council-manager is a bad government, a corrupt government?

    You don’t even live in the city. I came here with zero connections, and just showed up and after a year or so or learning what was what, was able to be heard and shape my city. Of course, I had a few skills that translated, but I never did this sort of thing elsewhere–like Chicago (“We don’t want nobody nobody sent.”) Aside from the Daleys, Chicago had terrible mayors–Bilandic, Byrne, and to a lesser extent, Washington, over the last fifty years. For every Joe Riley, there’s a Marion Barry.

    I have seen many, many people become active and influential, not because of where they live or who they know, but because they just showed up. Once the titans of business get involved, good luck with that.

  12. Brad

    I’ve always thought that “well, the people aren’t jumping up and demanding that I do this, so I’m going to ignore it” to be one of the cheesiest, dodgiest ways that politicians have of completely dismissing good ideas.

  13. Silence

    Brad – You’d “right” about a city issue? LOL

    I’m going to agree with ‘Kathryn on this one. Imagine if we’d been saddled with Mayor Cromartie?

    Of course, the voters are never wrong, just look at North Carolina…. (I kid, I kid…)

  14. Brad

    I expect you’re joking, but I know that others have said that without joking, so I will say…

    The city would NOT be “saddled” with a Cromartie.

    Cromartie is the almost pure, perfect expression of the district politician — the sort of person who could not get at-large support, but can sufficiently appeal to a narrow constituency to gain and keep power in a system that rewards parochialism.

    Therefore, he is more representative of a system that gives all power to a legislative body that is four-sevenths district, and completely eliminates at-large voter input into the operation of the executive functions of government. Which describes what we have.

  15. martin

    Maybe all those Columbia Council members are starting to hear about the incredible messes in the totally unaccountable Cabinet agencies that have accelerated under the radar during the Haley Admin and realize that following the advice of The State’s arrogant Editorial Board will lead to nothing but grief.

    Yes, that wonderful Editorial Board was as right about restructuring state government as it was that the governor has no power. Any politician with half a brain would automatically disregard any idea they come up with.

  16. Silence

    Cromartie would have mopped the floor with Mayor Bob. The threat of him doing so afforded him enormous leeway in city politics.

  17. Patrick Cleary


    I agree with you about the strong mayor plan, and want the city to adopt it sooner than later. I wonder if your (understandable) admiration for Mayor Riley colors your thinking.

    I see Kathyrn’s point well. A strong mayor has a powerful incentive to do little that would annoy the electorate. Although I completely disagree with her slightly negative opinion on Mayor Washington, he created a powerful impetus for change in the city..

    In many ways, this question about a strong mayor comes down to what the electorate wants from a city, regional government, etc. A strong mayor provides the base for a vision, a good manager provides solid administration.


  18. tavis micklash

    I did an entire series on my website on strong mayor. My wrap up comments are there.

    Saying that i never felt particularly invested in the issue. I thought it was worth discussing though.

    As I said I was divided on the issue. Part of me really wanted it put on a referendum. The other part thought it was a waste of money and time.

    I did have serious concerns for checks and balances but we never got more than an overview that I already had seen on the sc met government website.

    I wish I had known there was no veto and that all the mayor had was a regular vote on council prior to the meeting though. It would have soften my opinion of it.

    I think the Moe Baddourah portion of this was the biggest surprise to me. I did some research on his facebook page at his platform. It wasn’t listed there.

    He did respond to my email I sent council yesterday

    This was his response “I agree with many concerns you have. The public needs more time to digest the whole new system and council needs to be careful of any changes to city policies and the way it does business”

    He offered to do a follow up as well. After I talk to him I’ll update my website and cross post it here.

  19. tavis micklash

    “Therefore, he is more representative of a system that gives all power to a legislative body that is four-sevenths district, and completely eliminates at-large voter input into the operation of the executive functions of government. Which describes what we have.”

    Boom headshot.
    This was the main thing I heard whispered about the push behind strong mayor. It wasn’t as much about strong mayor as It was trying to shake up a stalled system and break up the districts. It was moving the city from a collection of neighborhoods to a more broad entity as a whole.

    I could never substantiate it though from anyone on council though. It was just rumors from the community though.

  20. `Kathryn Fenner

    I do not believe that any of the current district representatives are people who could not get broader support.

    I despised pretty much everything about Mr. Cromartie (W.E. Itsallaboutme–as Neil White brilliantly caricatured him in As the City Turns), but he did actually do some good for some underserved areas–houses got built in Waverly and Lower Waverly, for example. And who are we to say that that district didn’t get the sort of person they wanted. It’s kind of patronizing to presume that–and I certainly did presume that he was bad for the district.

  21. Silence

    When do we get to talk about West Virginia’s “Alvin Greene” moment? Democrat primary voters for the win!

  22. `Kathryn Fenner

    and as Professor Stucker taught me, I have four representatives on council–the district rep, the two at-large, and the mayor.

    An example of how a district rep makes a difference is the historic preservation overlays that Belinda championed. Not terribly important to folks in most of the other districts, but District 3 cared. Each neighborhood that wanted to was able to draft its own guidelines–from very restrictive as University Hill and Elmwood Park are, to very loose–as Five Points is.

  23. Mark Stewart

    The bottom line seems to be that the bigger issue is the April city election schedule. This was exactly the kind of vote that ought to be presented to the widest possible cross section of the city’s residents. Anything else is pure hubris.

    And I find it hard to swallow the idea that a city management structure breeds competence. One only needs to look at Columbia over the past decade. If things are any better it is only because of the pressure that the strong mayor push has put on this potlach.

  24. Silence

    @’Kathryn – I agree that E-dub took care of his constituents – that’s how the game is played if you want to stick around.

    As to the current crop of district reprosentatives:
    Sam Davis – Nice guy, not forceful enough in my opinion, definitely wouldn’t win citywide.
    Brian DeQuincey Newman – Too new/young. Not a good citywide candidate at this time.
    Belinda Gergel – High enough profile to win citywide. Capable of raising enough money to do it. I think she could win.
    Leona Plaugh – Good experience, I don’t think she could muster a city-wide campaign.

  25. tavis micklash

    OK guys I finally got around to typing up my talk with Councilman-Elect Baddourah about strong mayor.

    My story is on my website here.

    Overall it came down to control of the city budget and the fact that it just felt to rushed. I think alot of council wanted the full package first rather than voting for it then finding out later that it has some poison fill in Mayor – Council Form of Government.

  26. Silence

    In light of the pending lawsuit and allegations made against our current mayor and city administration, would that change anyone’s mind about this issue?

  27. `Kathryn Fenner

    Leona had very deep support in the neighborhoods citywide, but especially the northside ones, when she was city manager.


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