Elections officials preparing for Dec. vote on strong mayor - wistv.com - Columbia, South Carolina |

Elections officials preparing for Dec. vote on strong mayor

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With Richland County elections officials completing the certification process of a petition to force a citywide vote on changing Columbia's form of government, election officials now have to gear up for an unusual December vote in the capital city.

They won't be used for another 46 days, but Richland County election officials are making sure voting machines are ready to go in November. They checked software on the machines Friday afternoon.

After the Nov. 5th general election, the machines could get more workouts with the addition of a Dec. 3 special election allowing Columbia voters to determine whether they want to restructure city government.

That vote pits supporters of a switch to the mayor-council form, the so-called "strong mayor" system, against those who want to maintain the current council-manager setup.

Former Attorney General Henry McMaster helps lead the effort to change to strong mayor.

"People all over the country are looking towards the south, the southeast, Columbia in particular," said McMaster. "We need to have a mechanism in the city government that can respond to the kinds of requests, the kind of interest, and the kind of action that is necessary to move us forward down that road to prosperity and we don't have it now."

Former Richland County Council member Kit Smith is among opponents of the restructuring move.

"Granted it's been branded as a strong mayor, but in a lot of cities this turns into a strong arm mayor," said Smith, "and people just need to be aware of that and look at whether they want professional management or political management."

The debate over the revamp has been underway in Columbia for at least a decade and a half, but the two sides say many voters still might not be aware of all that comes with the change.

"I think the key is accountability," said McMaster. "If you have a mayor who is doing things and doing all these administrative and executive things and in a way that does not please the electorate, they can vote him right out."

"Frankly, if it passes and people know what voting for, I would be very satisfied with that," said Smith. "My concern is that people don't understand the significance of this change and they need to be educated, so I look forward to the coming weeks and have an opportunity to engage in discussion."

Strong mayor supporters include the Chamber of Commerce and that group might be better financed and organized, but there are some local political veterans on the other side and they will be able to draw on their expertise in trying to stop the strong mayor movement.

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