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Crisis Whisperer

During COVID-19, City Manager Teresa Wilson again guides Columbia through turbulent times

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Columbia City Manager Teresa Wilson at the Columbia Fire Department’s training center.

It's a cool but bright spring morning, and activity is swirling at the Columbia Fire Department’s training center just off Bluff Road in southeast Columbia.

About three dozen new firefighters are on the scene, decked out in their gear, hustling through various drills and practicing rescue scenarios in the department’s towering training buildings, all while veteran supervisors keep a close watch.

It’s literally an exercise in bravado, with eager young recruits honing the methods and tactics they’ll need to go charging into emergencies and help Capital City residents in moments of crisis.

But when the lady in the mask shows up, the hard-charging new firefighters quickly fall in line and give her their rapt attention.

The lady is Columbia City Manager Teresa Wilson, and the recruits gather in perfect formation to hear what she has to say. The city government’s top executive since 2013, Wilson wears a blue City of Columbia jacket in addition to the protective covering over her mouth and nose, a necessary accessory during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Wilson is calm and measured. She thanks the new recruits for their service, and assures them they will have the city’s support as they embark on firefighting careers, finding the perfect balance between firm and lighthearted. The protective mask partly disguises her typically warm countenance, but it can’t hide her expressive eyes.

While they might not realize it, there are lessons the young firefighters could take from her career path. Wilson’s time in her position has been defined by crisis.

It’s a path that began, in her first year as manager in 2013, with a contentious, and ultimately unsuccessful, voter referendum that would have switched the city’s form of government and given the mayor power to run the day-to-day operations of the city. It continued as Wilson pushed her own plans for a national search for a new police chief the following year, hoping to stop the extreme revolving door of leadership in that department.

In 2015, a completely different crisis literally fell from the sky, as a 1,000-year flood smashed Columbia, claiming lives, destroying homes and businesses, blowing a yawning hole in the side of the Columbia Canal — the city’s main water source — and damn near bringing the Capital City to its knees.

And now Columbia finds itself in the most unique crisis of all, as the sweeping coronavirus has, in roughly a month, completely changed daily life in the city. Schools are closed, the city is under a nightly curfew, businesses are shuttered — some temporarily, others forever — and local government is scrambling to keep services running and figure out what is likely to be a dire budget situation in the coming year.

But none of that is reflected in Wilson’s demeanor on this recent morning. As he watches her address, longtime Columbia Fire Chief Aubrey Jenkins, a 41-year veteran of the department, quietly evokes the biblical book of Esther when describing Wilson’s leadership.

“I think she’s the right person for the job right now,” Jenkins tells Free Times. “I think she has been put in place for such a time as this.”

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Columbia City Manager Teresa Wilson discusses a new mask sanitation program at the Columbia Fire Department training center.

One of Columbia’s Own

Wilson didn’t initially set out to be a city leader. But her heart has always been tethered to Columbia.

Wilson, 45, grew up in northwest Columbia, the daughter of lifelong educators. Her father, Steve Wilson, is superintendent of schools in Calhoun County. Teresa graduated from Irmo High School in 1992 (she was later inducted into the school’s hall of fame) and attended the University of South Carolina’s Honors College, graduating in 1996. Then came the USC School of Law, from which she got her law degree in 1999. She would later go to work for USC as a Statehouse lobbyist.

It was that lobbying work that opened the door for her at the City of Columbia.

“I met [former city manager] Charles Austin because part of my responsibilities with USC were to cover local government,” Wilson tells Free Times. “So, I would monitor City Council meetings a lot and I got to know him and the staff. We were talking one day and he wanted to beef up the governmental affairs program at the city. They had some contract lobbyists, but he wanted to bring someone in-house and actually establish a department.

“I had never even considered local government.”

She went to work for the city in 2007, initially in governmental affairs. Essentially, the role called for her to lobby on the city’s behalf at the Statehouse. But the job also had a secondary impact: In order to effectively advocate on the city’s behalf, she had to learn the ins and outs of the various departments in the bureaucracy. It was, in essence, the true beginning of her pathway to city management.

“As I came on board with the city, I began to work with all departments in the city to try to advocate for the city over at the Statehouse,” Wilson says “That helped me learn the city, the functions of the city and what the manager did. As time wore on, I began to work more directly with [Austin] and his management team.

“I ended up becoming an assistant to the city manager, doing programmatic work with Mr. Austin, and ultimately was promoted to assistant city manager and oversaw several departments.”

Bob Coble, an attorney with Nexsen Pruet, was Columbia’s mayor from 1990 to 2010, and was in that position when Wilson began her career with the city.

“I knew she was going to be destined for bigger things,” he recalls. “She was very good. Her people skills were excellent and, on the legislative issues I was familiar with, she did an excellent job with that. She was very smart, well-organized and a hard worker.”

Howard Duvall also vividly remembers the early days of Wilson’s governmental career. While he is now a second-term Columbia City Councilman, Duvall previously was the longtime director of the state Municipal Association. He says he initially knew Wilson from her lobbying days at USC, and then became more familiar with her when she started lobbying for the city.

He notes she very quickly took to the issues that affected municipalities.

“When she went to work for the city in government relations, she worked closely with the team with the Municipal Association in advocating for cities,” Duvall tells Free Times. “You could tell she knew what she was talking about. She learned the municipal issues very quickly.”

Duvall says that later, when Wilson was beginning to get serious about a path into city management, she reached out to him about what professional certifications she should seek. He directed her to the International City/County Management Association. Wilson got certified through that organization, and remains a member. It’s one of a number of certifications she’s picked up through the years.

But beyond education, Duvall says he is taken by Wilson’s grasp of the issues at play in the various departments of the city. Columbia has 2,300 employees and an annual operating budget of $358 million. (Wilson takes home an annual salary of $207,000.)

“I have been impressed, when I’ve worked closely with her on Council, with her knowledge of the nuts and bolts of these departments,” Duvall says. “She can talk to you about water and sewer issues, she can talk with you about recreation, she can talk to you about funding and staffing for police. All of that. She is as qualified a city manager as we could find anywhere in the United States.”

Wilson notes her lifelong journey in Columbia — from childhood through college and into her professional life — gave her a unique perspective that she carried into city management. She’s from here, she grew up here, and she knew the people and issues here.

“I had the opportunity to go away to college and other things, but I made the decision to stay,” says Wilson, whose daughter, Alex, is a high school junior at Cardinal Newman School. “I’m always advocating young people to get various experiences, but there’s nothing wrong with staying at home and using your talents and treasures at home. It brings, sometimes, a different perspective to what you do and how it can impact people.”

But Wilson’s time as the city’s lead executive hasn’t always been smooth.

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Teresa Wilson is on the scene during training for new recruits to the Columbia Fire Department.

‘That’s When She Made Her Bones’

After Wilson was hired as Columbia’s city manager in 2013, there wasn’t much time for celebration.

That year, there was a contentious voter referendum as to whether Columbia should keep its long-held council-manager form of government — in which council and mayor set policy and the city manager and staff carry out the day-to-day business of the city — or switch to a strong mayor form of government, where the elected mayor would run the city.

Mayor Steve Benjamin, who was in his first term as mayor through most of 2013 and would be elected to a second term that fall, was the face of the strong mayor movement, and pushed hard for the change. That made for a somewhat uncomfortable dynamic, as Benjamin and Wilson had been, and remain, longtime friends, going back to when they were teenagers. Now the mayor was helping lead the push for a form of government that would put him, and future mayors, in charge of the city.

“Back when I first began, I didn’t necessarily anticipate that,” Wilson says of the strong mayor referendum. “At the time, it was hard.”

But, in the end, the referendum failed, and the city kept the council-manager style of governing.

“I think what came out of it, for the good, was that there was a true educational process that occurred,” Wilson posits, “where the citizens now better understand about the balance of having an elected body, but a professional manager and team who are handling the day-to-day.”

For his part, Benjamin, now in his third term, tells Free Times he still “believes in the accountability of the strong mayor form of government.” However, he is insistent that his push for the switch years ago wasn’t a personal issue with Wilson, who he says has been “nothing short of excellent” in her role as the city’s top executive.

The mayor says he remains close with Wilson.

“I consider Teresa a close, personal friend, and that’s never been different,” Benjamin says. “She’s been a friend since she was 16. I don’t mind disclosing the fact that her daughter is my goddaughter, and that my youngest child is [Wilson’s] goddaughter. Our family bonds are tight and have never been shaken.”

But the strong mayor referendum wasn’t the only storm in Wilson’s early days as manager. She also was tasked with hiring a new police chief, a process that began in late 2013 and stretched into 2014 with a national search. That eventually culminated in the hiring of Skip Holbrook, who is still in place six years later.

The idea of hiring a police chief might not seem like a lightning rod moment, especially with the relative calm Holbrook has since cast upon the role. But before Holbrook arrived from West Virginia, the police chief’s seat in Columbia had been an almost comically scattershot affair. When you count permanent, interim and acting chiefs, 10 people held the post between 2004 and Holbrook’s hiring in 2014.

And, at the time, there were intense Council debates about how Wilson should carry out the search for a new chief. There was even a proposal from then-Councilman Cameron Runyan to examine the cost of merging the Richland County Sheriff’s Department with the Columbia Police Department. That proposal would have put Sheriff Leon Lott at the head of the merged department.

But Wilson powered through those discussions, and eventually hired Holbrook. Current at-large Councilman Duvall says it was a bellwether moment for Wilson.

“I think that’s when she made her bones,” Duvall says. “She stood up and said, ‘No, I’m going to make this hire.’ We have gotten one of the best police chiefs around because she had the guts to do that.”

Wilson agrees that the hiring of Holbrook — who has placed an emphasis on community policing and ushered in a host of programs in an effort to curb gun violence in some of the city’s most troubled neighborhoods — was a moment that gave her momentum.

“There are a lot of things I’m proud of since becoming city manager, and there are a lot of things that I still want to work on,” she says. “But hiring Chief Holbrook, who is my colleague and friend, six years ago is one of my proudest moments as manager.”

While those tough moments in her early years dealt with turmoil within the city government structure, Wilson has since been tasked with meeting crises beyond her, or anyone’s, control.

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Teresa Wilson addresses the crowd at a Columbia Fire Department’s training day.

‘Nerves of Steel’

Lessons were learned in October 2015.

That’s when historic flooding rocked the Capital City, destroying homes and businesses, wiping out roads and bridges, walloping the city’s water and sewer systems, and breaching the Columbia Canal, the city’s main water source, just west of the South Carolina State Museum. Nine people were killed in Columbia during the disaster. It left the city underwater, literally and psychologically.

Though the city was filled with water, it was a baptism by fire for Wilson, the first major natural disaster during her time as the city’s manager. While she was tasked with leading the city’s staff through that crisis — she was a key public face in the harrowing days following the deluge — she almost immediately began thinking of future disasters and moves she needed to make.

“I knew that this was going to change my focus and perspective on emergency management and crisis management for the rest of my tenure as manager,” Wilson says. “After that, I recognized we had to hire an emergency management director. We had never had the position hired at the city. The police chief, Sheriff Lott, the fire chief, they all were working in tandem with one another.

“But, the City of Columbia, in situations like that, was having to rely on the county resources, as well. A city our size, the Capital City, we need our leadership at the table from an emergency management perspective.”

Shortly thereafter, Wilson hired veteran firefighter Harry Tinsley as the city’s new emergency management director, a position he continues to hold. In the years since the flood, she and Tinsley have worked to “harden the city” against disasters, whether it be through infrastructure or greater collaboration with state and federal authorities.

But a repair to the canal remains elusive. The city and the federal government have long been far apart on what it would cost to fix the breach — at one point the city said it would cost $169 million, while the feds were estimating the damage at $11 million — but Wilson says negotiations are getting closer.

Mayor Benjamin says he remembers Wilson’s demeanor during the 2015 flood, and says it was typical of her response to a crisis.

“She has nerves of steel, and I think that helps significantly,” Benjamin offers.

Duvall agrees, and adds that he thinks Wilson’s legal training also helps.

“She’s got a certain talent,” Duvall says. “She stays calm when things get hectic. She has a good base of knowledge. She is a lawyer, and she thinks things through very carefully. She is careful not to overreact. All of those are qualities we need from a leader in times of trouble.”

And, to be certain, we are now in times of trouble.

The COVID-19 pandemic has gripped cities and states across the U.S., sickening more than a million people and killing more than 60,000 as of May 1. The crisis has ground the economy — particularly the hospitality industry — to a near halt, and caused cities to reevaluate the way they interact with the public, while also threatening to greatly damage municipalities’ fiscal coffers.

By law, the City of Columbia has to pass a balanced budget for the next fiscal year by June 30. Wilson says that will happen, but was quick to note there will likely be budget amendments after the new fiscal year begins. She says city leaders are running various scenarios on just how much less revenue the city will have to work with because of the economic fallout of COVID-19, even toying with the idea that it will have tens of millions less in cash coming in.

But, so far, the city hasn’t laid off any workers.

“We haven’t done any furloughs,” Wilson reports. “We haven’t changed the pay of any of our salaried or hourly employees. We are paying everybody just the same, even though we have changed working conditions, as far as remote working, teleworking platforms. Essential and frontline staff are still working as normal.”

“To me, as long as we can sustain doing that, I’m committed to doing it.”

The city has done what it can to respond to COVID-19 at the ground level. Council approved, and Wilson and her staff have doled out, $1 million in forgivable loans for small business hit hard by the crisis, with another $400,000 in funding on the way. The city also has struck a deal with a private lab in Greenville for thousands of COVID-19 tests, which are initially being used for the city’s frontline workers and their families.

Wilson says the city is now leaning on the state and federal government for more assistance.

“We’ve sent letters to the state delegation to suggest that perhaps the state’s surplus [budget] funds also could be dedicated to local governments, because we seem to be able to push those funds out a little quicker to the people it is helping most urgently,” she details.

Benjamin says Wilson was nimble in changing the way city employees worked amid the coronavirus.

“Some of the early moves, which Teresa led, on shifting our staff to working from home to make sure they stayed healthy, to making advancements in technology to make them productive wherever they happen to be in the world, and making sure we kept our obligations to employees as we work through this period of uncertainty, have moved us forward,” the mayor says.

As he looks to the future, beyond the immediate coronavirus crisis, Benjamin says he could foresee an issue ahead as it relates to the city manager.

“Our greatest challenge, I believe, is going to be keeping Teresa over the long haul,” the mayor shares. “I do believe that other cities that are looking for talented administrators — and others in the private sector — have their eyes on her and will keep their eyes on her. As well they should.”

But for now, Wilson isn’t worried about what her next professional destination may be. She says she’s focused on helping the city get back on its feet after COVID-19. She longs to see citizens once again hanging out in the city’s hospitality districts.

And she’s hopeful that, at some point, there will be a moment without turmoil to attend to.

“We find ourselves in these moments where we have to continually pivot because of a crisis moment,” Wilson says. “And that’s OK, because [crises in the past] have made me stronger, so I imagine it has made our employees better and stronger.

“But I do want to get to that calm place one day.”

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