COLUMBIA — Two candidates vying to be Columbia's next mayor disagree on the need for a city health chief for the COVID-19 pandemic and beyond.
Sam Johnson, a former aide to Mayor Steve Benjamin, proposes hiring a health officer to help oversee coronavirus response and lead the city out of the pandemic. City Councilwoman Tameika Isaac Devine, a councilwoman for 20 years, called the position unnecessary, saying the next mayor should work with the county and its existing resources to address public health issues.
The clashing positions came during the first forum ahead of the Nov. 2 election. It was one issue that drew a clear distinction between the two.
In a debate hosted by community activism organization Empower SC, Johnson and Devine spent close to two hours answering questions from host Merrell Johnson about topics including law enforcement funding, inequities in housing and wealth made worse by the pandemic, and affordable housing and food availability.
Another candidate, City Councilman Daniel Rickenmann, didn't participate in the early forum because he was traveling, organizers said.
Johnson first proposed hiring a city health officer after announcing his run in February, with the idea aimed squarely at a city still grappling with the ongoing COVID-19 crisis.
Johnson said the position is needed not only to guide the city out of the pandemic but also to lead on future public health issues.
"Sometimes you just have to be willing to lead," he said. "This is one of those situations where I feel the city has to lead in having a chief health officer who is focused on public health beyond a pandemic."
But Devine said it's important for the next mayor to use available county resources, since city residents pay county taxes too. Plus, many of the tasks Johnson proposes for the health official are already covered by the city's emergency manager, she said.
"I would say the reason the council probably hasn’t moved on that, including our current mayor, is because we don’t believe that is a role we should be taking on at this point," Devine said.
The forum was a chance to make an early pitch to voters about why each was suited to be mayor.
Devine repeatedly referenced her nearly two decades as a council member representing residents citywide and said the mayor’s office would give her a platform to get more done.
She also touted her position on the board of the National League of Cities, which lobbied for direct money to cities in the latest, nearly $2 trillion federal spending package Congress passed last month. Columbia is set to receive $26 million in COVID-19 relief from that law.
Johnson said he's the candidate with the most experience in the mayor's office, having worked as Benjamin's chief of staff for the first several years of the mayor's tenure and had an active role in crafting the mayor's policy initiatives.
As for a recent economic study that found Columbia lagged behind other big cities in the state partly because of high combined tax rates, Devine said she's talked to officials with Richland One and Two school districts to begin learning about the issue and potential solutions. Devine's husband, Jamie Devine, is former chairman of the Richland One board and president-elect of the state School Boards Association.
Johnson said the city had reduced its tax rate during the past 10 years and that a solution would require collaboration with other local officials.
Both Johnson and Devine said they wouldn't support cutting the police budget, as protestors nationwide have demanded following the death of George Floyd, a Black man who died last May as an officer in Minneapolis, Minnesota, kneeled on his neck.
Instead, both advocated raising pay to help retain officers.
Johnson's public safety plan includes creating a mental health team within the police department and annual psychological screenings for officers. Devine noted the city has added a social worker to help address mental health issues.
Devine was asked by moderator Merrell Johnson about past potential conflicts and whether voters could trust she wasn't looking to personally benefit from her elected position. He specifically referenced a 2009 loan via a federal program from the city to Devine's mother to buy a downtown building that would house Devine's law practice, as well as specialized bond work Devine's law firm was paid for by Richland One School District, while her husband was chairman.
Devine said she's done nothing illegal or unethical with the loan and that her mother had refinanced the loan and repaid the city after questions were raised. To the school district work, Devine said she resigned from the bond work her firm had been contracted for over the concerns. She said she worked with Richland One for years before meeting her husband and had also worked with the state and Richland Two.
She noted she had not been cited by the State Ethics Commission over the relationships. Her husband was fined by the commission for his 2018 vote to award a $55,000 school board contract to EngenuitySC, a nonprofit organization on which his wife was a board member. Jamie Devine had argued that his wife had received no financial benefit from the vote.
Sam Johnson said the next mayor should help create a city ethics policy so "we can clearly call balls and strikes on those types of issues."
Benjamin announced in February he would not seek a fourth term and will leave office at the end of the year, triggering announcements from Johnson and Devine. Benjamin has not endorsed either of his allies, saying he will pay attention to campaigns and ultimately support the candidate he feels has the best ideas.