April 17, 2012
City council to resume strong mayor considerationVoters could decide whether leader should run the city
The decades-long tradition of a professional manager to oversee Columbia municipal operations might be turned upside down with a strong-mayor form of government.
Wednesday, City Council is to resume consideration of whether to hold a public referendum -- most likely in November -- which would allow voters to turn over the keys to the day-to-day functions of city government to a mayor.
Mayor Steve Benjamin said Monday, he supports a strong-mayor form of government.
"I love this job," Benjamin said. "I would anticipate running again (in 2014)."
But city attorney Ken Gaines has advised council that even if voters decide in November to change the form of government, state law would not allow it to take effect until July 1, 2016.
Benjamin, himself a lawyer, would not say Monday if he disagrees with Gaines' opinion.
"It's been a lingering question," Councilwoman Belinda Gergel, who asked council to put the issue on the agenda for a work session that begins at 2 p.m. at City Hall, said Monday. "If we have an ordinance ready to go, I'd like council to deal with this as soon as possible."
Benjamin said a draft ordinance was put together late last year. Gergel said if that is the case, she would move Wednesday to get a first vote on a referendum. A final vote likely would be delayed until August, Benjamin said.
That would allow current and newly elected council members to vote on the question of a referendum and still fit the timetable spelled out in state law, which requires a public vote in no less than 30 days and no more than 90 days after council decides to hold a binding referendum, Benjamin said.
At least one new councilman, Cameron Runyan, elected two weeks ago, has said he supports having the question on the November ballot. Runyan, who campaigned saying he wanted to be part of Benjamin's team, has said he would vote for a strong-mayor system.
Benjamin and Gergel said council wants the public to have time to weigh the issue, either through public forums or by contacting council members.
"It's important that the mayor not be seen as making a power grab," said Benjamin, who is a part-time mayor and is paid $17,500 yearly. "I want the citizens to have a chance to have a voice. We want to be sure everyone gets heard."
Such a change in the structure of government "is a big deal," and controversial, he said.
Gergel, who is leaving council June 30, deflected the timing of Wednesday's discussion away from Benjamin. "He didn't raise this. I did," she said.
Gergel said she supports a strong-mayor form that council considered in January 2010, but it did not approve putting the issue to a referendum. "How we feel about this personally should have no bearing" on putting the question before voters, she said.
The timing of any votes this year primarily is being driven by the state law on altering the form of municipal government. Council could set a referendum for another time of year, but the timing of its votes would be different under state law.
In addition, any election law changes require approval of the U.S. Justice Department's Voting Rights Division.
Gergel said she favors holding the public vote during a general election, which this year would include a presidential campaign, because voter turnout would be higher. Given a 12 percent turnout in the April 3 council elections, Gergel said a November referendum would allow more people to weigh in on such a significant change in city government.
By CLIF LeBLANC
Reach LeBlanc at (8034) 771-8664.