Opinion by Grant Robertson
Something that I hear continually is how painful it can be to sit through city council meetings. Perhaps I am in not in the majority here, but I have to confess that I love watching them. My girlfriend consistently has to rush past Channel 2 with me because she sees and recognizes the gleam in my eye when I see that grainy, obscenely wide shot of the council chamber and hear those droaning, unhappy voices piped through crappy microphones.
To those of you that find city council meetings dull: you are clearly not paying attention.
In the meeting on Wednesday, September 15, Mayor Benjamin, under light pressure from the four local news crews present, decided to push item five on the docket forward. Item five dealt with the heated â€œ2 a.m. closingâ€ for bars that weâ€™ve all heard so much about. It began with a presentation by Tom Sponseller, head of the â€œHospitality District Safety Taskforce,â€ put together by council several months earlier, in order to point out possible decisions that council could make to increase safety in our hospitality districts. On multiple occasions, almost ad nauseum, Sponseller told council that 2 a.m. closings for bars was not always the answer. He said, again and again, that these early closings work well in some places, and not so well in others (read: businesses can go belly up).
Other options included a curfew for minors in the hospitality districts, actual police foot patrols, bars having the ability to hire off-duty police officers, and my personal favorite... hiring another consulting firm. Specifically one from outside Columbia so that it has no ties to businesses here. Thatâ€™s right: The consultants recommended finding more consultants.
Councilwoman Plaugh was the most concerned, saying something along the lines of: â€œWeâ€™ve already been waiting since May to hear your solution... and your solution is to ask someone else?â€ A valid point.
Belinda Gergel - who began the crusade to shut down bars at 2a.m. in the first place and who is the reason we all found ourselves in this discussion to begin with - then proceded to ask broad, general questions about 2 a.m. closings that had already been addressed by the committee, as if she had not even been listening for the 30 minutes prior. Three more council members voiced their concerns, including the mayor. All agreed: â€œThis is something that we need to make a decision on.â€
And, in the same breath, council moved on to the next item.
It was somewhat unbelievable. This taskforce had put forth mostly valuable information: put more police officers in Five Points (on foot patrols, specifically), donâ€™t let minors be there unattended after a certain time, and fix the laws that are on the books so that police officers can enforce them. These are all reasonable responses, and in most peopleâ€™s minds, a comprehensive plan towards solvency without damaging the established businesses in the district.
Yet, no one on council was willing to take a hard stance on what to do. I have a hard time figuring out what we are paying them to do, since their answer to every tough question seems to be that what we need is more time and to pay someone to tell them exactly what to do.
To a certain point, this is no surprise from City Council, many of whom now find themselves in the awkward position of having to make decisions for themselves after decades of obtaining shadowy instructions from puppet master E. W. Cromartie. Bust Steve Benjamin is jockeying to place himself in a position of command by calling for a switch to a strong mayor system.
I ask you now, Mayor Steve, if you firmly believe in the strong mayor form of government, can you please demonstrate that you have the will and judgment to wield such power? This council needs more leadership than you are currently giving it. Make a decision and own it. Simply taking points of personal privilege and calling on people to speak is just not going to cut it anymore. The One Columbia you have created is waiting for you to be an actual leader.