City Hall change: What mayor's new hire could mean for you

Columbia, SC (WACH) - Since taking office last summer, Columbia mayor Steve Benjamin has taken a very active role in shaping the future of the capital city. Right now, there's a first unfolding in the mayor's office, an open position with an up to $105,000 salary for a strategic policy advisor. The salary range starts at roughly $65,000. It's a big change for an office previously staffed by two administrative assistants.

"The office of the mayor here has been traditionally understaffed," said mayor Steve Benjamin.

Columbia's weak mayor system is driven by city council and a city manager, but, Benjamin isn't letting that stop him from shaping a vision for Columbia.

"Y ou don't have to have a strong mayor form of government to have a strong mayor," said Benjamin. "You can lead with some great ideas, great policy, great vision."

Some political analysts agree with Benjamin's take. Dennis Lambries of USC's Institute for Public Service and Policy Research has studied, and worked in local government for years.

" The critical issue isn't what form of government you have but how it works," said Lambries.

Lambries calls the policy advisor job a good move, not necessarily a shift in Columbia's form of government. Voters can only approve a change in the form of government through a referendum.

"One could argue that having someone in-house whose focus is not day-to-day administration would be advantageous," said Lambries. "However, if they're brought in to pursue the mayor's agenda, and I'm not suggesting that's what happening, then that changes the dynamic."

Even vocal critics of Benjamin are on board with Benjamin's move to establish a policy advisor position to give the mayor's office a more active role in developing city policy. One-time mayoral candidate, and communications consultant Kevin Fisher gives the position the green light.

"I do think the city needs to have the mayor to have a stronger presence, a stronger leadership position," said Fisher.

While Fisher applauds the mayor's move he still has questions about who could fill the job. Benjamin's former campaign communications director Michael Wukela is considered a strong candidate for the position. Wukela was hired by the city on a temporary basis back in September. Right now he handles public and media relations for the mayor and helps manage the Mayor's Fellows, a group of college interns that helps write speeches and works on community initiatives.

"I do have questions about what you're paying this person and who the person is and the realizations that need to be made between a campaign adviser paid with private money versus a servant of the city paid with tax money," said Fisher. "If the mayor, or council, or the city manager try to set it (the salary) at $105,000 people should revolt in the streets. It's ridiculous."

Mayor Benjamin says no matter who gets the policy advisor job, the salary will not exceed the money budgeted for the administrative assistants who previously worked for the office..

"I think mayor Benjamin has done a very good job of saying what his vision is for the city of Columbia and the direction he wants to take," said Dennis Lambries.

The new job posting expires at the end of February when the mayor will make his choice on what path to take and who will walk it with him.

"We take this job very seriously and we're not go to waste any time over the next four years in getting some great things done for the people," said Benjamin.

What do you think about the strategic policy advisor position at the Columbia mayor's office? Vote in our poll below and leave a comment to weigh in.