With or without petition signatures, City Council could still pu - wistv.com - Columbia, South Carolina

With or without petition signatures, City Council could still put strong mayor on ballot

Columbia City Council could vote for putting the strong mayor referendum on the Nov. 5 ballot as early as Wednesday night. Columbia City Council could vote for putting the strong mayor referendum on the Nov. 5 ballot as early as Wednesday night.

A vote Wednesday night during a Columbia City Council meeting could put strong mayor on the Nov. 5 ballot with or without the certification of over 12,000 petition signatures urging a vote on the issue.

Council already voted 4-3 last Thursday on first reading for an ordinance that would ask voters if they want to change Columbia's form of government and give more power to the mayor's office.

Wednesday night's meeting is focusing on giving the ordinance a second reading and potentially putting the issue to a final vote. City council is meeting at the Eau Claire Print Building.

The potential vote is just the latest in Columbia's long, winding path on the strong mayor proposal.

In 2011, council voted 4-3 against changing the city's form of government. Two years later, Mayor Steve Benjamin submitted a proposal to allow Columbia citizens to vote on the issue during the Nov. 5 city elections, but that plan also failed in a 4-3 vote.

But the issue did not end there. Business and community leaders mobilized a petition effort to put the plan to a citywide referendum. Petition organizers needed 15 percent, or just over 11,000 people, of the city's registered voters to sign the petition in order to push for the vote. On Sept. 10, organizers submitted 12,000 signatures asking for strong mayor to be on the Nov. 5 ballot. 

Officials with the Richland County Elections Office have been busy verifying the signatures since they were submitted last week. 

Elections Director Howard Jackson says they have completed verifying the signatures, but he will not have the results available for the council meeting.

Jackson says they are now in the process of checking tabulations and doing a quality check to make sure everything is in order.

The official results may be turned in to the City of Columbia on Thursday morning.

Meanwhile, strong mayor opponents on the council have argued the issue is too complex for voters to make a decision on in just a month and a half.

Part of the complexity of the issue in the council's eyes lies in what exactly the mayor's responsibilities will be if the strong mayor proposal is given approval by the voters.

"There are very real questions, and sometimes very complex legal issues that need to be answered before we're asking to change a form of government that we would have to keep for a minimum of 4 years before you can even revisit it," said Councilwoman Tameika Isaac Devine.

But city attorney Ken Gaines told council a state statute sets what the mayor does on a daily basis, not council.

A community effort also sprung up to delay the referendum vote until early December. Howard Duvall and "Communities for a Greater Columbia" says the issue deserves more time and special attention.

"Number one, it gives us more time to educate. Number two, it divorces the question of the change in the form of government away from the emotional election we're going through for the mayor," said group member Howard Duvall. "This is not about Mayor Benjamin, this is not about any one person in particular. This is a form of government we're going to have for decades to come."

We're working on gathering more information about Wednesday night's vote through interviewing council members and election officials to see even if the referendum can make it on absentee ballots in time. We will update this story throughout the day.

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