As officials verify signatures, mayor says there will be refere - - Columbia, South Carolina |

As officials verify signatures, mayor says there will be referendum

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Less than 24 hours after a group of citizens turned in over 12,000 petition signatures to force a referendum on changing Columbia's form of government, Columbia City Council met Wednesday night to discuss an ordinance on the issue.

"This is not the best for our voters," said Councilwoman Tameika Isaac Devine. "We need to be engaged in a real process and real dialogue and the outcome of that dialogue, is what it is, but the way this has happened is really, really disconcerting."

Devine and fellow council members Leona Plaugh and Moe Baddourah all voted against Mayor Benjamin's ordinance to put the strong mayor referendum on the November 5th ballot. But the first reading of the ordinance passed 4-3 Wednesday night.

"The only reason that I called this special  meeting is not whether or not there will be a referendum," said Mayor Steve Benjamin. "There will be. This issue before us is how much it will cost taxpayers."

Benjamin says passing the ordinance is a proactive step to make sure the people are able to vote.

"It's the people's right to make this decision," he said. "It's not the responsibility of council to shut down discussion and debate. We're suppose to facilitate it and encourage it."

"It continues to be spun that we don't want the voters to vote and we're trying to block the voice of the voters but to me -- when you have you petitions put in front of people and they're not told what they're signing, I'm not sure you are letting the voters' voices be heard," said Devine.

Plaugh said the issue is not about money but about the process.

"Right now we don't know if those signatures will be certified or not," she said. "We need to let the process work. What we did tonight is preempt the idea of having a petition drive. We did it for the voters. We didn't do it with the voters."

Benjamin said he's confident that the necessary signatures will be certified. He says he's been told by the Richland County Election Commission that verified results of the petition could be presented as soon as Monday.

Council members questioned the time frame for putting the issue on a ballot and how much it would cost for a special election. They asked procedural questions about the certification of the petition signatures and if the council could take action before the signatures are certified.

The ordinance would give the city between 30 and 90 days to hold a special election on the issue.

Councilman Cameron Runyan said council has a moral obligation to listen to the citizens in regard to the strong mayor plan.

"My prayer is that tonight, we have a window of opportunity to save the taxpayers money by not having to have a special election after Nov. 5, so we can combine this referendum," said Runyan. "It's gonna' happen now because it's a certified petition. Once that happens, we've got a window of opportunity to get it on the ballot, so we need to go ahead and just do it tonight and get it over with and let the democratic process work itself out."  

But Plaugh said the city is not following the procedure laid out by the state on how this process should go. They say it's not until a petition is verified that council should consider setting a date. It could take up to 10 days for that to happen.

As for that verification process, it began in earnest around 11 a.m. at the Richland County Election Office.

Officials are checking the first 500 signatures of the petition to see if they are valid, then they'll check every 10th signature. Officials will then apply the percentage of those verified to the overall total to see if there are enough valid signatures to formally accept the petition.

Supporters of the strong mayor proposal needed 15% of the city's population, or 11,063 people, to sign the petition. In a Tuesday afternoon news conference, the group said they had independently verified and submitted 12,533 signatures.

A group of concerned citizens watched the counting process in an effort to provide oversight. One of those citizens, Howard Duvall, said he's already found some discrepancies.

"They're finding quite a few that do not meet the requirements of a proper petition, the signatures don't match the ones that are on file," said Duvall. "That's the key to this procedure that we're going through today. They're actually looking at signature on their election form versus the signature on the election petition and if that's good they go to make sure that the person is a registered voter inside the city of Columbia."

Richland County Elections Director Howard Jackson is overseeing the counting and said he wants to insure the process goes smoothly and the final results are accurate.

"They're not going to rush," said Jackson. "I'm not going to put any extra pressure on them to rush to get it done because first I want to make sure it's done correctly."

The petition is just the latest in the wild roller coaster effort to transform the city's power structure and give the mayor's office more say in day-to-day operations.

Council voted against changing to a strong mayor system back in 2011.

The petition effort stemmed from council's most recent vote against putting the issue on the November ballot despite support from Mayor Benjamin.

A second reading is on the agenda for a special meeting next Wednesday.

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