Steve Benjamin on ecodevo, strong mayor, tax base, etc.


I thought about calling this “Ivy Day in the Committee Room Redux,” but I’d used that gimmick before. You can see how I’m tempted when I attend a small political gathering in the back room of an Irish-themed pub.

Anyway, I went to another of Jack Van Loan’s Kaffeeklatsches with Mayor Steve Benjamin, and he talked with the folks there (a group invited by Jack, who is a Benjamin supporter) about a number of issues.Benjamin Jack

When I entered the room, he was talking about economic development, and saying, “Cities grow from the inside out.” Which is kinda why those of us who look (admittedly, from the outside, Kathryn) upon Columbia as a whole, instead of through the lens of this or that neighborhood, tend to like such things as the strong-mayor initiative.

He went on to say later why development is so important in the Vista and Five Points and Main Street and other commercial corridors, and why it was so important to get Bull Street going — the fact that one of Columbia’s “skyscrapers” (he used the word somewhat ironically), such as the Capitol Center (SC’s tallest building, where the Cap City Club is) or the new one next door with EDENS and McNair Law Firm, or Nelson Mullins’ Meridian Building, brings in more tax revenue than a 600-home residential development.

Hence his emphasis on “vertical development.”

Look south from the Capital City Club, he said, and if you see five buildings taller than four stories that are on the tax rolls, “you’ve done something special.” The view in the other three directions are similar.

Not that he would give up such key drivers of the local economy as USC, Fort Jackson and state government, but if you’re going to keep the city going, it needs more tax base.

Then he talked about strong-mayor. Most there were for it. One man said he’s for it, but friends he was going to see tonight were not, and he wanted to know what to tell them when they say, “What about cronyism?”

Benjamin answered diplomatically, possibly because I was there (and Charlie Nutt, the new publisher of Free Times, as well). He said something vague about how cronyism could occur under other systems as well. What I would have said, of course, is that you’ve got cronyism now; it’s just harder to see. If everyone, from voters to media, has a strong executive to focus on, you know where to look for cronyism. This or that person is connected to the mayor. Much, much easier to spot than with a little-known city manager who reports to seven bosses.

The mayor said one thing about strong-mayor that surprised me. Maybe he’s said it before, and I missed it.

He said that he would NOT hire a professional administrator to oversee the rest of city government and report to him. He said that all of the department heads — with special emphasis on the police chief — would report directly to him.

This sounds good — “buck stops here,” and all that. And indeed, when he said it, Jack muttered, “Damn right.”

But I questioned it. I said, couldn’t you have the best of both worlds? Wouldn’t it answer the concerns of the Howard Duvalls of the world, who say that the current system is better because you have a professional manager in charge, while you can’t guarantee an elected mayor would have any administrative skills.

Benjamin conceded the point, and emphasized that he hasn’t really fully thought out all the details of administration should he be re-elected and strong-mayor passes. First he’s working on he re-election, and after that will “focus like a laser beam” on the strong-mayor issue.

But he defended his statement about no administrator by expressing his concern that such a position could dilute the accountability that is the best feature of strong-mayor.

And, he added sort of jokingly, hiring a manager wouldn’t really satisfy Howard Duvall. He had a point there…

7 thoughts on “Steve Benjamin on ecodevo, strong mayor, tax base, etc.

        1. Doug Ross

          You are only a crony if you get some sort of financial benefit from your relationship with your cronies.

          That happens all the time in Columbia government.

  1. Silence

    First of all, from those pictures it looks like you all are there to cut some sort of smoky back-room deal. Possibly you are in some sort of speakeasy. Judging by the characters there it would not be suprising for Dick Tracy to bust through the door, or for Flat Top to start shooting up the place. I hope you were wearing your wrist-radio.

    Secondly, as much as I like the current mayor, and I will add that he’s always been up-front and dealt squarely with me, I do see a hugely increased opportunity for cronyism and corruption in a strong mayor system. At a minimum it could be a return to a “spoils system” of political patronage. There are probably a dozen department-head jobs that pull six figures, and a lot more jobs that pull high five figure salaries in city government. I can forsee a time where these jobs are given out as political plums, instead of earned through dedicated careers in public service. How can we institute management policies to control this? I haven’t heard that discussed.

  2. Mark Stewart


    We have political patronage now with the Council Manager form. Red Herring. in fact, it may be a bit worse as it’s hard for us on the street to know who is doing the influencing, or why within the Council. With a strong mayor system the lines are much more apparent…

    1. Silence

      Can you point me to some of these alleged political hires? Interestingly enough, the City of Columbia salary data seems to no longer be available on The State’s “Midlands Salary Data” webpage….

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