Voters to decide on strong mayor in special election if petition - - Columbia, South Carolina |

Voters to decide on strong mayor in special election if petition is certified

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Source: Meaghan Norman via Twitter Source: Meaghan Norman via Twitter

After much debate and a busy week for employees of the Richland County Board of Elections, voters in Columbia will not decide in November if they want a strong mayor form of government.

Instead, Columbia City Council decided in a 4-3 vote Wednesday to host a special election Dec. 3 if the petition asking for a referendum is certified by the Board of Elections. 

The board says the certification is completed, but employees are running a verification and quality check.

Columbia City Council hosted a special meeting Wednesday night to debate the referendum. As absentee ballots have to be mailed Friday, a decision had to be made by then.

Instead of taking a vote on the strong mayor referendum, council passed a substitute motion raised by Tameika Isaac Devine that would send the issue to a special election. The majority of council members thought there would not be enough time to educate voters about the strong mayor form of government before the Nov. 5 election date.

Mayor Steve Benjamin, who supports the strong mayor system and is running for re-election, was one of three council members voting against the motion. He argued if the petition signatures were certified, the city would waste taxpayer money on a special election. He said council should have voted to put the issue on the November ballot from the beginning, and by having the special election close to the holidays in December, voter turnout would be suppressed.

"It only makes sense for the people to hold an election when we're already having an election, not to waste another $150,000 in taxpayer money to push an election into the holiday season in the hopes that less people will come out to vote," said Benjamin. "That flies in direct contravention of what we've been trying to work when we moved this election to November."

Council members Brian DeQuincey Newman and Cameron Runyan also voted against the proposal with Devine, Sam Davis, Moe Baddourah, and Leona Plaugh voting in favor.

For council watchers, Councilman Davis appeared to be the swing vote in this debate. He explained his position during the meeting.

"The position I expressed was based on verification of the signatures," said Davis. "That's the credibility I stand in."

Devine says the vote came down to one thing: voter education.

"I counted that we had 18 citizens come up today with questions, asking for some more time. I've got tons of emails over the last couple of days," said Devine. "I think it's only prudent for us to give citizens the right answers to these questions no one has thought about. Not even the mayor can answer all of these questions."

Despite being unsuccessful in his efforts to get the referendum on the November ballot, Benjamin says he believes voters will be in favor of the strong mayor proposal regardless of when they have to vote on it.

"This is not about strong mayor or full-time mayor or anything else. It's about having a fundamental change in the way in which the people of Columbia can hold their leaders accountable," said Benjamin.  

Employees at the Richland County Board of Elections spent the last week verifying signatures on a petition asking to put the referendum on the November ballot.

Richland County Elections Director Howard Jackson said the results of the petition will be released Thursday.

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