The Shandonistas strike back: Strong-mayor was stopped by insiders. Again.

During a lively discussion on a previous post, Phillip Bush wrote:

You should be happy, Brad. The State’s article today alluded to the “unusual bedfellows” who were joined in opposition to this measure, it crossed all sorts of party/ideology lines. (For that matter, so did the Yes side)….

In reply to that, and in response to a comment from Kathryn Fenner about us “outsiders” who wanted the change, I wrote the following (and then decided it should be a separate post rather than a comment)…

Oh, DANG! In copying the above comment from Phillip, I lost it! OK, I’ll try to reconstruct it…

This reform was defeated by insiders, no question about it. Insiders who managed to persuade a majority of the few who turned out to vote with them. So congratulations to them for winning. Again. The strategy of having a completely unnecessary extra election in order to separate the issue from the re-election of a popular mayor worked. (The idea that an extra month was needed for discernment, after all these years of discussion, was risible.)

But as for the idea that I should be happy…

It’s facile to say, look, there are Democrats and Republicans, black and white people, working together on this. Those are granfalloons, within this context. As I’m sure Bokonon would tell you if he lived here, as meaningless as granfalloons can be the rest of the time, they are particularly irrelevant to a city election in Columbia. The group I saw aligned against this was, to my eye, homogeneous — a true karass, to keep the Vonnegut theme going.

This was, on one level, a case of the Shandonistas striking back. Look at the chief apostles of “No,” who celebrated their victory in the ultimate Columbia insider salon: Kit Smith’s house. Kit herself, Howard Duvall, Rusty DePass, Tameika Devine, Moe Baddourah (a relative newcomer to insiderism, but a very quick study — he changed his mind on strong mayor between the day he was elected and his very first council meeting).

Am I saying these are bad people? Absolutely not. I like and respect all of them. The kind of insider I’m talking about is generally someone who has given much to the community. These are good, dedicated people. But as I say, they have gained, I’ll even say earned, a certain access — through election, or through years of volunteer advocacy — to the current power structure.

Now, the power structure that exists is a feeble thing. It moves slowly and ponderously, and is far better at stopping things from happening than at making them happen. But it is power, and it’s the kind these folks have access to. Power that, let me hasten again to add, all of them want to use for good. But whether you want to do good or ill, in politics, you “dance with the one that brung you.” And this system is the one that “brung” these folks to the point of being able to achieve whatever they have accomplished thus far. They are invested in it.

Meanwhile, strong-mayor is a more open, less controllable, broader, more dynamic system. Empowering a chief executive who has a mandate from a majority of voters increases volatility, makes it more likely that things will happen. Those of us who have enough faith in democracy to believe enough good things will happen to outweigh the bad — and believe in the power of greater transparency (which is a feature of strong-mayor) to correct the bad — tend to favor it. Those who fear the bad that can happen tend to oppose it — especially when they themselves have access to the keys that can occasionally move the present, slower, less dynamic, more conservative system.

Strong-mayor — and Steve Benjamin himself — represent a broader view of what Columbia is and can be, a view that includes all of us who live in the de facto city, all of us whose destinies are tied up with it. Those with a narrower view — who can speak in terms of “them” telling “us” how to run “our” town — will reject it. To them, it’s just far too risky. Interests that don’t have their acutely-tuned sense of the community’s good might have an impact on what happens, and that’s just too uncomfortable.

Phillip says I’m wrong to equate this with the Legislature’s ongoing refusal to empower the executive (and thereby the people who elected the executive). Perhaps he’s right, but I don’t think so. I’ve been here before. When we did the Power Failure series back in the early 90s (which advocated for local reforms as well as statewide ones), I noticed how many really good, smart, dedicated people who cared deeply about South Carolina — officeholders, political operatives, lobbyists for idealistic nonprofits, and so on — reacted negatively to what we were writing. I thought a lot of most of these people. They were people I’d like to have arguing for these reforms rather than against. They were important influencers. So we hosted a series of luncheons — about 30 people at a time — consisting of these vocal opponents, to address their questions and explain why we were doing this. But with most of them, I had trouble selling our idea of cluing the Great Unwashed out there into why South Carolina didn’t work better than it did. And that’s because all of these people had learned to move this system as well as it could be moved, although in limited ways. They knew how things worked, to the extent that they worked, and many of them believed that was enough.

Bottom line, many smart people will see diversity in the successful opposition. But I see what the chief opponents had in common more clearly than their differences.

38 thoughts on “The Shandonistas strike back: Strong-mayor was stopped by insiders. Again.

  1. Brad Warthen Post author

    Oh, for those who wonder what I mean by “again,” or my parenthetical reference to “all these years of discussion,” I refer you to a column I wrote in October 2007:

    Look at this joke of a commission that was assigned to examine whether the city of Columbia should ditch its ineffective, unaccountable, “don’t ask me” form of government. It was supposed to report something two years ago. And here we are, still waiting, with a city that can’t even close its books at the end of the year. Whether its that fiscal fiasco, or the failure to justify what it did with millions in special tax revenues, or the rehiring of a cop who was said to be found drunk, naked and armed in public, there is no one who works directly for the voters who has control over those things.

    But as bad as it is to have no one to blame, there is no one to look to for a vision of positive action. A city that says it wants to leap forward into the knowledge economy with Innovista really, really needs somebody accountable driving the process.

    Columbia needed a strong-mayor form of government yesterday, and what have we done? Sat around two years waiting for a panel that didn’t want to reach that conclusion to start with to come back and tell us so.

    It’s worse on the state level….

    At least it came to a vote this time. Yes, a vote timed to maximize the strength of advocates of the status quo, but a vote nonetheless…

    1. Brad Warthen Post author

      Here’s a true-life, personal confessional of an “insider” moment of my own…

      You remember the commission referred to in my comment above? Bob Coble had formed it as an advisory panel on Columbia’s form of government.

      BEFORE he formed it, he came to visit Warren and me in our boardroom one day. He talked about forming this commission, and wanting to tell us about it because he knew we were so interested in the subject.

      Then, he asked us who we thought should be on the panel. And as we thought about it, he opened up his binder (Mayor Bob is way organized, and tended to take a binder with his presentation all carefully prepared to meetings) and prepared to take notes.

      This made us uncomfortable. Yeah, we were all about telling everybody how we thought they should run things in the paper, but this opportunity (or at least, apparent opportunity) to influence things brought out our newsmen’s reluctance to be part of the story.

      But we didn’t want to be uncooperative, or shrink from a challenge.

      So we thought hard, and suggested a wide array of people, including as many who were likely to be opposed to strong-mayor as people who were likely to support it. Just going out of our way to be fair.

      And while he didn’t rubber-stamp that exact list, that was the nature of the commission that he appointed.

      It was a collection of irreconcilable views, and of course it never came up with a recommendation. Deadlocked from the start.

      Sometimes, one can kick oneself for being so ethical and all.

      1. Brad Warthen Post author

        Not that he would have just gone along with a panel stacked for strong-mayor. He would have left us and gone straight to a neighborhood leader who would recommend all anti people… and made that person feel all good and special for being included, too, as he was doing with us.

        But one can still kick oneself.

    2. Bob Amundson

      I was a member of that “joke of a commission.” In the end, I believe we voted 11 for and 15 against recommending to City Council to change the form of government to Council/Mayor. But by the rules set by City Council, we needed a super majority of 75% to make a recommendation. So guess what, it took a while to write the report because we were set up to fail.

      Howard Duvall was clearly not an advocate of Council/Mayor, but I do believe he agreed that Columbia City government was broken. The primary problem was, and is the culture of not following the rules of Council/City Manager. It is AGAINST THE LAW for council to interfere with administrative functions, but no one has ever been prosecuted on this according to the Municipal Association of South Carolina. From the report: “Finding 1: The System as presently operated is broken. The City is not operating under the statutory mandate which authorizes the council-manager form of Government.”

      Because of this administrative interference, council does not focus on what they should be doing. “Finding 2: The Council has failed to establish City-wide, budget based, long term goals and strategic plans for the City and this is a critical requirement for the council-manager form to be successful.” In Columbia, policy, planning and budgeting suffer because of time spent dealing with constituent issues.

      However, it is not just Council responsible for the failure of governing in Columbia, it is the elite who use their connections to Council to get what they want. Most ordinary citizens do not know to call Council when there is a public safety issue, a code enforcement issue, etc. I believe that is one reason why there are still such profound differences in public safety and code enforcement between, for example, Shandon and Eau Claire.

      One final comment, dealing with another finding stating “The City should pursue functional consolidation opportunities with Richland County.” Under South Carolina law, political consolidation (combining Richland County Council with Columbia City Council into one Council) is not possible. Functional consolidation, such as one Fire Department (which we already have), is possible. I hope our area can reduce “factions” via consolidation as Augusta-Richmond, Jacksonville-Duval, Charlotte-Mecklenberg, and
      numerous other non-“Deep South” cities have done. Just today, Eva Moore of Free-Times listed this in their cover story the consolidation of county-city government as one of 24 ways to improve our city.

      This city is so far behind other cities that are State Capitals with major universities. For my grandchildren’s sake, I hope the Columbia Metro area will become more innovative, more livable, such as Raleigh-Durham, Baton Rogue, and Austin.

      1. Bob Amundson

        My post should have read 11 for and 4 against, for a total of 15 members, or 73.33% in favor of changing to Strong Mayor. Doesn’t sound packed against Strong Mayor to me. Sorry for the mistake . . .

        1. Brad Warthen Post author

          And I’m sorry if I gave the impression — when I wrote that, six years ago — that I considered you or any of the individuals on the commission a “joke.”

          It was, as you said, set up to fail.

          So the joke was on y’all for your hard work yielding an impasse, and on the rest of us for expecting a clear outcome…

          1. Mark Stewart

            The clear outcome will only ever come if a vote on the strong mayor proposal occurs on the first Tuesday of November in a Presidential Election cycle.

            How hard is it to simply accept the will of the majority? No, I know the answer to that…

  2. Kathryn Fenner

    Shandonistas spent a lot of money and time fixing up houses nobody wanted. They, and I, deal with a lot of issues living where they do that are not faced by y’all who live in residential neighborhoods in the suburbs that have restrictive covenants…..

    1. Doug Ross

      ” live in residential neighborhoods in the suburbs that have restrictive covenants…..”

      Why wouldn’t anyone who cares about their home WANT that? Our neighborhood has covenants that are pretty easy to enforce. Who needs the stress of dealing with lousy neighbors? The worst thing we’ve had to deal with is maybe a new owner who put a plastic shed in his yard.

    1. Brad Warthen Post author

      And you don’t live in Shandon, either. But the characteristics most of us attribute to Shandonistas were in evidence here, and certainly one can’t deny that Kit’s house is the epicenter of Shandonism…

      And I mean that in a nice way, despite all my frustration…

      I won’t even go into the fact that many of us who make this city our home can’t afford to fix up old houses in Shandon… I don’t like class resentment. It’s so tacky. We frown on it at the club…

      1. Kathryn Fenner

        Kit lives in Wales Garden….

        Plenty of houses are still affordable in Shandon. They just aren’t as huge as you think you require…

        1. Brad Warthen Post author

          I’m sure you’re right, but whenever I’ve been there, I thought I was in Shandon.

          To us outsiders, it all looks like Shandon… pretty much everything between Devine and Rosewood. I lump in Hollywood/Rose Hill, for instance.

          But seriously, Kit has always been a key figure in what some were pleased to call the Shandon Mafia. I think it’s nicer, and cooler, to say “Shandonistas.”

        2. William

          So there are those within Columbia’s city limits who look down upon those of us who don’t want to spend $200,000 for a 70 year old, 1200 sq.ft. house with no garage on a 1/16th acre lot that needs everything?

  3. Kathryn Fenner

    For what I pay to live where I do, I could have a nice huge yard for my dogs, with space for a nice garden, too, and a two car garage so I don’t have stress over parking, etc…..

    I’d have to find a new hobby, though. As another activist quips whenever entering another meeting, “Some people go bowling.”

    1. Brad Warthen Post author

      We have a two-car garage. We use it for storage — mostly stuff that belongs to the kids, and which they don’t have a place for.

      It’s been a LONG TIME since we’ve had room in there for a car.

      But we have no trouble with parking, with a double driveway and a little pulloff on the side into the trees, so we have room for three vehicles without anyone being behind anyone.

      With our crowd coming and going, there’s usually someone parked on the street anyway.

      We don’t need all of our space all of the time. But when we need it, which is frequently, we need it…

      1. Doug Ross

        What am I missing out in Blythewood? I have a garage and a big fenced backyard that our dogs can use to run around. And I’m guessing my house cost about what a low end home in Shandon would cost. If we want to do something downtown, it’s a 20 minute ride.

        The only reason I would live downtown would be if I worked downtown…. which I think is the case for most of the commenters here. Wouldn’t want to commute from Blythewood to the State House area every day.

  4. Bob Amundson

    34 out of 31 wards voted for Strong Mayor. WISTV listed about 10-15 Wards with high turnout voting overwhelmingly “No.” Two were Pennington and Woodlands, well off neighborhoods in District 4 (as many are in that District). I’d bet a dinner that the other wards listed are mostly include wards that have incomes well above the Median average. Elitism wins again . . .

  5. Phillip

    Look, I respect the passion that many of you have for the now-defeated strong-mayor proposal. But this idea that somehow it was the “insiders” who stopped it, while presumably the “outsiders” were seeking to bring a new day to Columbia, come on already. Is there anybody more “inside” than Steve Benjamin? “Insiders” and “outsiders,” if we must establish these categories, were to be found on both sides of this issue.

    Columbia is more than the sum total of what can be done with it by developers and real estate movers and shakers. To Bob Amundson’s comment about Columbia lagging behind Raleigh-Durham and Austin, those places are not perfect and their growth has not come without cost and complaint from many of those who live there. Sure, there has been “growth” but growth is not a straight equivalency to “livability.” It was the “insiders” who wanted strong mayor, in my view.

  6. bud

    Two quick points. First, these restructuring initiatives rarely make much difference. A lot of words have been written over something that really isn’t all that big a deal. After all decades ago the State pushed for the city manager form of government as the panacea for all city problems. Now all of a sudden it’s evil incarnate.

    Second, and more important, the people have spoken. Let’s stop with all this naysaying. Just because you don’t like something doesn’t always make the result an evil conspiracy.

    1. Bob Amundson

      Let me be very clear; I believe a city the size of Columbia operates best under a Council/Manager form. Of course, Raleigh, Austin, Baton Rogue, Columbus, etc. are not perfect. I’ve lived all over the United States, been in most every major city (including the ones above). I live in Rosewood, a really nice neighborhood, and most streets don’t even have sidewalks! Columbia’s park’s system is horribly inadequate. Read this week’s Free Times to see other “things” people believe Columbia needs that other cities have.

      I am not debating which form works. I do have a very strong opinion that Columbia, and South Carolina as a whole, lag behind the rest of our imperfect Nation. Our county’s governmental system, with checks and balances, never makes change, even incremental change, easy. Radical change, which is needed when a system is broken, is even more difficult and requires strong leadership. The evidence around me, and the opinions of many people (including those living outside of Columbia, who do have a right to their opinions; Free Speech!), is that Columbia, and South Carolina, need radical changes. To do that, we need strong leaders.

      South Carolina has a long history of fearing strong leaders, and power is purposefully diffused, locally and at the state level. I am a realistic optimist; Columbia can, and will, improve. But let’s get over the Civil War, this mostly civil war, and get to work.

      1. Brad Warthen Post author

        As for “most streets don’t even have sidewalks” in Rosewood…

        We don’t have them in my neighborhood, either. In part, I suppose, because the subdivision was started in the 70s, when it was assumed everyone would drive everywhere.

        And yet we have a lot of walkers (regular walkers, not like the ones on “Walking Dead”). They walk in the street, and move out of the way when cars are coming — and the drivers watch out for them.

        Unlike in Shandon…

        Shandon has sidewalks, but it seems everyone walks and runs and bikes (and when I say “bike,” I mean sometimes moving so slowly it’s a wonder they stay upright) and walks their dogs down the middle of the street. And they can’t be bothered to move over when cars are coming. Like they’re supposed to be there in the middle of the street, but cars aren’t. Maddening…

        1. Brad Warthen Post author

          But while their bikes can be maddeningly slow, when I say “run,” I mean run.

          There are still some joggers, but I’m startled at the number of folks I see running full-out, as though someone were chasing them.

          I’m further startled by how many of these are young women (the rest, of course, are young men — you have to be young to do it) who absolutely, positively do not “run like girls.” They run just like male sprinters. Sort of makes me wonder whether evolution has suddenly speeded up. I had assumed, when I was young, that girls ran the way they did because they were built differently. Apparently not. I mean look at this girl. Wow… I mean, yeah, she’s built differently — another wow — but there’s no wasted hip motion there.

          I find myself wondering what they’re preparing for. People don’t run that way in marathons…

          1. Doug Ross

            ” I mean, yeah, she’s built differently — another wow — but there’s no wasted hip motion there.”

            That’s the understatement of the year. Even when she’s standing still there’s no wasted hip motion.

  7. Lynn T

    The people on both sides were those who are often politically active in our community, not “outsider” voices for change. That is normal; most political debates are populated by people who are normally politically engaged. I also can’t agree with the notion that somehow the opponents saw no urgent need of change because of their own access to the political system.

    There has been too little attention to the different values and perspectives associated with votes on this issue. Supporters said the change would encourage more public-private partnerships. Voters thought “Rivers Edge” — corruption and abuse. Supporters said Columbia would be “more business friendly.” Many voters thought of the very “friendly” Bull Street contract, so friendly that the city attorney recommended against signing. Supporters said “more access to the political process through the mayor.” Opponents thought of the complete lack of transparency in the Bull St. deal, in which only the developer and the Chamber of Commerce seem to have had meaningful access.

    So, I don’t think your “insider” theory does much of anything to explain this vote. The opponents voices resonated with voters for a reason.

    1. Brad Warthen Post author

      Oh, I think they resonated with voters for a number of reasons, the greatest being what Bob referred to above — South Carolinians’ historical fear of any sort of strong executive leadership.

      History aside, to sell strong-mayor, you have to overcome a lot of reflexes people have, right there on the surface. Say, “I want to give a politician more power,” and right there, people react the way the characters on “Seinfeld” reacted to the news that their building manager was installing water-saving shower heads: “Low flow? I don’t like the sound of that…”

      People have to go another step or two to get to the understanding that without power — without responsibilities and the power to carry them out — there is no accountability.

      Which is not to say that further reflection makes everyone a fan of strong-mayor. The “insiders” to whom I refer have a deep understanding of the workings of government, and they prefer the status quo.

      And you could be right that I’m wrong. Making quick generalizations, as I did on this, involves my habit of reasoning intuitively. Sort of like Darth Vader with his, “I sense a presence — one I have not felt since…” It’s a Jedi mind trick.

      I’m sure there are plenty of ways to tear down my general observation. But I offer them not as the Last Word carved into granite, but to get a thoughtful discussion going. Maybe that discussion will talk me into a different conclusion. Then again, maybe not…

      I found interesting the story today noting that black voters stayed home on this one, and the victory of “no” depended on big wins in a few high-income (white) precincts. Not that black voters would naturally have voted “yes.” In fact, history indicates the opposite, on government restructuring proposals. But it was interesting.

      1. Brad Warthen Post author

        Actually, what history indicates is that black officeholders and power brokers are usually suspicious of government restructuring — the attitude tends to be, “Hey, we just got some power, and now you want to change the rules on us?” Very big on the “dancing with the one that brung you” thing.

        I really don’t have enough experience with referenda on restructuring to have an impression of how black voters react.

        It was interesting that in this case, the mayor (one black influencer) did a pretty fair job of getting some other black influencers to endorse the “yes.”

        On the subject of turnout…

        On the day of the vote, I remember having the passing thought, “Surely the advocates of reform will have a good get-out-the-vote effort — won’t they?” We got our answer.

        1. Brad Warthen Post author

          Reminds me of an uneasy thought I had once or twice in the runup to the Iraq invasion.

          As you know, for me, the WMD were unnecessary. There were plenty of other good reasons to take out Saddam. But as I heard everyone ELSE talking so much about WMD, I had this crazy thought: What if we go in, and can’t find WMD? That would be disastrous, not only for this operation, but for instances in the future when we need to use military power. That would be such a political disaster, that we’d never have the will to act again…

          I dismissed the thought right away, because everyone knew Saddam had WMD — like Assad, he had used them. The thought was on a sort of Harry Turtledove level, like, “What if aliens invade in the middle of everything, or what if the Confederates had had AK-47s?” It was a nightmare alternative-history scenario.

          And then, it actually happened…

      2. Mark Stewart

        This was the quote that got me: ““I think both communities (African-Americans and whites) were more comfortable with a form of government in which you can work together – even if sometimes it’s slow – than to risk one that can polarize us,” Kit Smith, one of the organizers of the “No” coalition, said.”

        Is it just me, or did this feel like the obstinate dilettantes on a condo board fighting every attempt at progress or change – just because they have little better to do and it gives them some jollies (and a sense of power)? No offense to Smith personally, her’s was just a good quote that illustrates just how reactionary, and cloying, these proponents appear; at least to me. The inability to close the city’s fiscal year books, the raids on the water and sewer funds, the dramas with the police and fire departments, the economic “development” robberies, the council member meddlings in administrative and public safety affairs etc., etc. are polarizing actualities. But they don’t appear to want to see that their constant internecine warfare is responsible for these deep, systemic failures. It’s like being enamored with a never ending game of keep-away.

        Columbia suffers from a lack of political leadership. That is a fact. While it should not be an easy ride for someone to build a coalition of the willing – true leadership ought to be obtainable in a community. Kit Smith and the other drivers (most especially Moe, Tameika and Leona) of this “no” vote don’t want to step up to that role; they just want to make sure nobody else surmounts the peak of public opinion either. To me, that is worse than presenting no leadership qualities at all. I am extremely ambivalent of Mayor Benjamin’s actions and decisions – both before he ran for office and while in office. He has a lot to answer for. And yet it is undeniable that he is the only person who attempts to demonstrate thoughtful, long-range leadership day in and day out. Compared with the others on City Council, there is absolutely no comparison.

        It isn’t a bad thing to have vision and a sense of how to achieve worthwhile milestones of civic progress. It isn’t a bad thing to make decisions today based on how a better future 20, 30 or even 50 years down the road is perceived. It isn’t a bad thing to bring unifying leadership to a city. Sometimes it is even appropriate to be a lightening rod that speaks of the things others would rather gloss over or avoid. Those are the people I want to see leading communities in which I live. They deserve the opportunity to be able to consolidate, and wield, some political power.

          1. John

            It is not just Mark. As a “Shandonista,” although apparently not a prominent one, I share his disappointment with the outcome.

  8. Doug Ross

    The best way to limit corruption is to implement term limits. Tenure = power. Eight years in any one position is plenty. Then go off for one cycle and if the people really like you, you can come back for another eight years.

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