COLUMBIA, South Carolina (AP)— South Carolina Republican Gov. Nikki Haley is asking voters in the Democratic stronghold of Columbia to give the mayor more power.
Voters in the state’s capital city will decide in a special election today whether to move to a strong mayor form of government, transferring most of the authority held by the city manager to the elected mayor.
As in most South Carolina municipalities, Columbia’s mayoral and council races are officially nonpartisan. But Mayor Steve Benjamin doesn’t hide his party affiliation. He was the Democratic nominee for attorney general in 2002, and previously ran the state’s probation and parole agency under Democratic Gov. Jim Hodges, who’s also supporting the effort.
A spokesman for Haley’s campaign said that shows politics played no role in her decision to get involved in the local issue. Haley is backing the strong-mayor push for the same reasons she’s fighting for the Republican-led Legislature to transfer more authority and responsibility to the governor’s office, Rob Godfrey said.
“It is more important that the people we elect have the ability to make decisions and be held accountable — this is the right thing for Columbia, and good things for Columbia mean good things for all of South Carolina,” he said.
Haley made the plea to voters in a mailer sent out late last week, funded by the pro-referendum group Columbia Citizens for Better Government.
“The present system is clearly flawed. As it is now, a committee of politicians hires a city manager who then hires all other city staff. When things go wrong, all we have is bickering and finger-pointing. That must change,” it read.
Haley can’t go to the polls herself. While she resides in the Governor’s Mansion, she still votes in her home county of Lexington.
Hodges said he’s not surprised Haley weighed in on the issue, which he called appropriate. The governor’s relationship with Columbia is critical due to geography, as the home of state government, he said.
Like her predecessors, Haley has been advocating for more power in the governor’s office, to finish the job started two decades ago by the late Gov. Carroll Campbell.
“Anyone who has been a governor in South Carolina understands the limitations on doing things you want to do,” said Hodges, governor from 1999-2003. “We’re all sympathetic to the plight of the mayor. He’s expected to do things by his constituents and has limited authority to do that.”
A government restructuring bill that moves many of the day-to-day operations of state government, including property and fleet management, into a Cabinet-level agency has died repeatedly over the years. Haley made it a central issue for her administration. In her first year of office, she even attempted to force the Legislature back to Columbia to pass it. That led to a summer 2011 showdown in the state Supreme Court that she lost.
Another Republican who’s been vocally backing the strong-mayor effort is former Attorney General Henry McMaster, a Haley ally.
“It’s the same interest,” he said of the state and local drives.
State Rep. James Smith, D-Columbia, said it makes perfect sense that Haley would advocate for restructuring on the local level as well. Smith, a close ally of Haley’s 2014 Democratic challenger, Sen. Vincent Sheheen of Camden, said he sees no political calculation in her move.
“I don’t think she’d gain any votes she doesn’t already have or lose any votes” on restructuring, he said, adding he appreciates her involvement.
It’s a nonpartisan effort on the state level too, he said, noting Sheheen’s sponsorship of the bill over the years.
More than half of the state’s 270 municipalities have a strong mayor form of government, including Charleston, North Charleston and North Augusta. Most, however, are small, rural towns. The 12 percent with Columbia’s current council-manager form include Greenville, Spartanburg, Rock Hill, Myrtle Beach, North Myrtle Beach, Aiken, Florence, Hilton Head Island and Beaufort, according to the Municipal Association of South Carolina.
The last time a city made the switch to strong mayor was in Union about a decade ago. Several years later, former Mayor Bruce Morgan pleaded guilty to public corruption charges. Two other towns have made a switch in the opposite direction, one to giving executive powers to the council as a whole, said Scott Slatton, the association’s legislative and public policy advocate.
While no other cities are currently considering a government change, he said, “there’s interest around the state in how this vote will go.”
The association takes no position on the issue. “All three work well as long as the people who inhabit the forms understand and adhere to their responsibilities, Slatton said.