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Columbia Mayor Benjamin wants to expand his office, but is it legal ?

Columbia Mayor Steve Benjamin's plan to expand his office to nine people with a budget of $1 million has some council members concerned the arrangement could violate state law.

But Benjamin said his staff would mostly be existing employees from other departments, not new hires, and that it would align the areas of the city he says the part-time mayor should be more involved in: economic development, governmental affairs and city policy.

Benjamin's plan is part of the 2011-12 budget.

Columbia has a council-manager form of government, meaning all employees report to the city manager. City Council members, including the part-time mayor, make policy decisions, hire the city manager and vote on the budget.

Columbia's mayor usually has had a staff of two people: an assistant and a secretary. Benjamin wants to move four employees into his office from other departments and create two new positions: a strategic policy adviser and a cultural arts director. The net increase in the budget would be $188,000.

The four people to be added to Benjamin's office include Teresa Wilson, the city's lobbyist, Wilson's assistant, and Chris Segars, a grant writer who works for the city on a contract basis. The other would be Ray Borders Gray, a public information officer in the parks and recreation department, who would focus on economic development in the mayor's office.

Benjamin said Wilson would be the senior-ranking employee in the office and would report to City Manager Steve Gantt. "I plan to be a very active mayor who plans to lead this city, regardless of the form of government, and I'm not shy about that," Benjamin said.

But some on council, including Daniel Rickenmann and Leona Plaugh, say Benjamin's budget request is tantamount to creating a new city department. And they question whether the employees in that office would report to Gantt, as the law states, or to Benjamin.

"I think they're going to work for the mayor," Councilman Daniel Rickenmann said. "Why else would you have them there? It looks like we're changing the form of government without a referendum."

Plaugh said the mayor should have access to those city employees without moving them into his office.

"We should make sure he has those resources available through the city manager," she said.

Most cities in South Carolina with a council-manager form of government do not have city employees assigned to the mayor. .

But other cities work around the law.

Charlotte, which is seven times the size of Columbia, has four people assigned to the office of Mayor Anthony Foxx-- a chief of staff, public relations person, administrative assistant and citizen liaison. Each of them officially reports to the city manager.

Those four employees are among the nine employees assigned to work with the Charlotte City Council, for a total budget of $812,111.

As long as Benjamin's office does the same thing, it would be legal, according to Howard Duvall, former executive director of the South Carolina Municipal Association.

"Charlotte has a history of being a more business-friendly city," Benjamin said, "so it doesn't surprise me that their structure is much more business-like. That's what we're trying to get to."

Councilwoman Tameika Isaac Devine said she doesn't think council should tell the mayor how many people he needs in his office. Benjamin said he wants to change the city to a strong-mayor form of government, but denied that expanding his office is an attempt to do it.