EDITOR’S NOTE: On Nov. 5, Columbia voters will pick a mayor, and a month later, they’ll return to the polls to decide if the job should be changed to a full-time job. Incumbent Mayor Steve Benjamin favors changing to a strong-mayor form of government, while challengers Larry Sypolt and Moe Baddourah have been either silent or opposed.
Reporter Robert Behre talked with Benjamin about the change:
Q: You support the change to strong mayor. Why?
A: “At the end of the day, if you want to have true accountability, then you have to have the authority to hire and fire.”
Q: If voters approve the change to the strong mayor and the job becomes full time, it’s unclear what the mayor’s salary will be next year. Are you concerned about that?
A: “I took this job when I knew it paid $17,000. I love serving as mayor of Columbia. I’ve in effect done it for free, and I’d do it for free. It’s not about compensation. It’s about having an elected official who is directly accountable to the people. Not only accountable, but has the ability and wherewithal to cast a broad vision to direct the city and has the ability to carry it out. That’s what this is about. I’ve recused myself from any conversation about compensation, so I’ll never discuss that.”
Q: When voters collected signatures to put the strong -mayor issue on the ballot, how much were they thinking about Charleston Mayor Joe Riley, South Carolina’s most prominent strong mayor?
A: “Very much so. He’s very well-respected. People see him as a visionary mayor. You may know I’m very active in the U.S. Conference of Mayors. I serve as one of the 13 permanent trustees of the conference, and I think I’ve demonstrated a great deal of skill and maybe vision in getting some things done, but it’s not lost on me that a lot of the credibility I’ve built among my peers is because of Joe Riley and Joe sharing with them his thoughts about me and his views of my leadership. He is the dean of America’s mayors, and that is not because of his tenure or anything else. It’s simply because he is considered to be the best of the best. So I think his leadership has helped shape this debate significantly.”
Q: Is the strong mayor an issue in your own Nov. 5 re-election campaign?
A: “I’m sure. People often say it’s a referendum on the incumbent. … It has provided a very sharp distinction between me and my opponents, so I’m sure it will be an issue.”
Q: City Council declined to put this on the ballot.
A: “They voted against it three times, I believe, on last count. Frederick Douglass said, ‘Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never has and never will.’ I find it regrettable because at that point, our discussion was primarily to let the people make the decision. This was not a decision for only us to make, and City Council refused to allow it to happen. Under state law, petitions have six months to collect signatures. It got done in three weeks. I think that’s indicative of the fact that people want to have this discussion.”
Q: Why do you think City Council members were concerned about losing power in the deal?
A: “I hate to get into the motivation of my colleagues, but Columbia has had a reputation for several years of having seven folks who want to help run the city day to day, and that’s a recipe for disaster. It’s a recipe for unaccountable government, and that’s got to change.”
Q: Do you expect the strong-mayor referendum to pass on Dec. 3?
A: “Yes, I do.”
Q: Do you have any hesitancy in seeking re-election not knowing exactly what your role will be?
A: “My first year in office, of my salary, I gave half of it away to employees as incentives to come up with new and innovative ideas to help the city save money. This has never been about compensation. I’ve been blessed. I have had a 20-year law career. I have other businesses. I have a fantastic wife who is a circuit court judge. We’ve done well. My only motivation has been to serve the people of Columbia and give back, so I’ll serve under this form of government or any of the three forms of government available to municipalities in South Carolina. And I’ll serve well.”