While I was giving blood yesterday, I saw a TV news report about the strong mayor issue, and there on the tube was Howard Duvall, former head of the state municipal association, standing in front of a group of people who are against the reform.
What struck me as weird was that Howard was asking that the referendum be delayed. For a month. He wanted this delay in part because people weren’t going to have time to study it adequately:
“If the people speak to a change in our form of government, let us do so with full awareness and knowledge,” group spokesman Howard Duvall said on the steps of the Eau Claire print building.
And I thought, Really Howard? People don’t know what they think now? And they’re not going to have enough time to wise up on the issue in the next seven weeks? But another four weeks will make it just right?
It’s just that Howard was not an ideal vessel for that message. I already know what Howard thinks about strong mayor. He’s said he was against it for years. Just as I’ve said I was for it for years. (Which will prompt Kathryn to say nobody cares what I think, since I don’t live in the city — which I’ll be happy to address separately.) Howard is fully informed on the issue, and well-equipped to disseminate his views on the matter. Seems to me that if he hasn’t reached people with his message by Nov. 5, things aren’t going to be that different by Dec. 3.
And yeah, Howard’s a special case, but it’s a bit hard to accept the idea that this has somehow snuck up on informed voters. We hammered it home at The State for years, and the paper most recently actually published a front-page editorial — something that never happened in my day — on the subject. Mayor Benjamin advocated for a referendum when he ran for office in 2010, and so did Moe Baddourah (although he reversed himself as soon as he was elected). The city council has had how many votes on it this year? At least two I can think of off-hand. This has been one of the hottest local issues for months (and years and years, for those paying attention).
So I wasn’t persuaded on that point.
But Howard had another point as well, which was “Let’s make sure that the process of change does not taint the outcome.” Which is a slightly dense statement, but let’s dilute it a bit. As The State paraphrased,
Duvall said the bipartisan group does not want a change in form of government to become a referendum on Mayor Steve Benjamin, who is seeking a second term and is a strong advocate for changing the mayor’s office into the chief executive of the city with the hiring and firing power now vested in a city manager.
Now that’s a different and intriguing point to consider.
I can see how a person might favor Steve Benjamin’s re-election but be opposed to strong mayor, and be worried about other people agreeing with him or her on the referendum, and worried they might also vote against the mayor. Of course, there’s a converse scenario in which Moe Baddourah’s chances are swamped by a big pro-strong mayor vote.
But I think people who are smart enough to find their way to the polls ought to be able to make two decisions instead of one. And… it seems like a sort of bait-and-switch to elect a mayor without knowing what that mayor’s powers will be. In fact, it would be better if the referendum were held before the mayoral vote — like, a couple of years ago, ideally (which should have happened). But it seems that same-day is the best we can do — Columbia voters can choose their mayor, and choose the powers of that office, at the same time.
Also, I appreciate having a mayor who is willing to stake his re-election, to some extent, on his stance on this reform issue. Someone who wants to be elected, or re-elected, to the office should share whatever vision he has for the city’s future. And if strong-mayor is part of that vision, I appreciate his willingness to run on it.
Kevin Fisher, in his column this week, raises another concern — that having the referendum too soon could backfire into a vote against the reform. Which, in fairness, is another way to read Howard Duvall’s concern about the process tainting the outcome. I think there’s something to that concern. This issue has been on the front burner so long that it’s kind of ridiculous that anyone would consider this a rush to judgment, but I have no doubt that some will feel that way. Never underestimate voters’ ability to completely ignore an issue until the last minute.
But in the end, I’m unpersuaded by calls to delay yet again. I agree with Warren Bolton:
Yes, it’s imperative to hold forums and disseminate information to help voters learn about the current council-manager structure as well as mayor-council, or strong mayor. But I can’t imagine that it would be too difficult for voters to comprehend a helpful nuts-and-bolts presentation on council-manager and mayor-council soon enough to vote in November.
Truth is, many voters know more about strong mayor than they do the people running for mayor and City Council. Nobody is asking for more time so voters can be educated about the people who will help run the city the next four years.
With it apparent that petition organizers have collected enough signatures to trigger an election, it only makes sense for the city to go ahead and schedule a vote on Nov. 5, along with other municipal elections. If that doesn’t happen, then the council would have to spend around $150,000 for a special election on the referendum.
And for what? A few more weeks to get information out to voters? Let’s be real. Voters need enough information to help determine which form they prefer. They don’t need a 16-week course that counts toward a college degree.
Oh, and by the way: Speaking of public forums, the Greater Columbia Community Relations Council (of which I am a member) is holding a public informational session on the issue next Wednesday, Sept. 25, at the Eau Claire Print Building, 3902 Ensor Avenue. As with the forum we had last year on the penny sales tax referendum, both sides will be presented as fairly and completely as possible. David Stanton will again moderate.