Get Out The Vote Committee seeks to hold public officials accountable

Wednesday, March 12, 2008 | 2:16 p.m. CDT; updated 10:55 a.m. CDT, Tuesday, July 22, 2008
First Ward City Council candidate John Clark responds to a question from an audience member during a public forum at the Salvation Army, 1108 W. Ash, on Saturday. Clark and fellow candidates, from left, Karen Baxter, Almeta Crayton and Paul Sturtz, addressed the concerns of First Ward residents.

COLUMBIA — It’s doesn’t take long during a walk down West Ash Street, in the middle of the First Ward, for Vernon Forbes and Atterrio Norman to begin pointing out the problems they say their neighborhoods face on a daily basis.

Broken beer bottles litter the street and sidewalks. Fast-food wrappers blow in the breeze. Some of the yards and homes in the area are in desperate need of upkeep. Dead weeds, junk cars and other eyesores are the sorts of things that Forbes and Norman are tired of dealing with, and they say a lack of response by the Columbia City Council is partly to blame.


The Central Columbia Get Out the Vote Committee plans to host a coffee with First Ward City Council and Columbia School Board candidates from 3 to 6 p.m. March 30 at the Downtown Optimists Club of Columbia, 1201 Grand Ave. City Council and school board elections will take place April 8.

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“This ward isn’t a dump,” Norman said. “There’s a lot that can be done with time and finances. It used to be way worse.”

Norman and Forbes are two members of Central Columbia’s Get Out The Vote Committee, or CCGOTV, which has been working for almost a decade to bring their neighborhoods’ problems into the public eye and work to get them solved. Although the group’s primary initiative now is encouraging First Ward voters to participate in the coming council election, they also seek to hold public officials accountable and to ensure the interests of the central city remain at the forefront of the City Council’s attention.

CCGOTV’s fight, however, did not begin there, nor does it stop there.

The group began in 1999, when five First Ward residents formed a committee to elect Aasim Inshirah to the First Ward council seat. Shortly after forming that committee, though, they learned that Inshirah had dropped out of the race. Left with no candidate to support, the committee wanted to remain part of an election that would affect their communities for years to come. With then-incumbent First Ward Councilman Larry Schuster stepping aside, several candidates, including Almeta Crayton, stepped forward to compete for the seat.

The group decided to host nonpartisan forums sponsored by neighborhood associations to inform voters of the candidates’ positions. And thus was born CCGOTV.

During the past nine years, however, the group has evolved. Imani Mission Center co-founder and director Glenn Cobbins joined central-city residents Forbes, Norman, Pat Kelley, John McFarland, Rebecca Schedler and Manuel Harvey to get First Ward residents out to the voting booths. This was a secondary action for Cobbins and other members of CCGOTV, after they decided last year against recalling Crayton, now a three-term incumbent seeking re-election.

“We decided not to recall her and instead get people out to vote and have the people hold officers accountable,” Cobbins said. “We started this so we could get a contested race and people voting.”

CCGOTV and its sister group, the First Ward Revitalization Committee, aim to boost voter registration and turnout, encourage civic participation by ward residents, increase the number of First Ward residents on city boards and commissions and work to ensure contested races for City Council.

One interesting feature of this year’s First Ward contest is that a founding member of CCGOTV, John G. Clark, is sitting on the other side of the table. Clark is running for the First Ward council seat against Crayton, Karen Baxter and Paul Sturtz. Thus far, CCGOTV co-founder Kelley remained impartial during the candidate forums despite her friendship with and support for Clark. Now that the forums are over, however, she has different plans.

“I will start working for John (Clark),” Kelley said. But she defended the decision to host forums even though one of her group’s founding members is a candidate.

“If I ran for a political office, I would hope that the rest of the committee would still have the forums.”

On the whole, members of CCGOTV say their group is impartial and objective, concerned only about helping better their community and getting First Ward residents more involved with decisions city officials make that affect them all.

“As long as we get the message across to the people involved, we’ve succeeded,” Cobbins said. “We’re doing this for our community, and they need to get out and help. If you do not vote, you do not matter.”

Key to making progress on the changes CCGOTV feels are necessary is the ability of the First Ward council representative to listen to constituents.

“We have these forums not just for people to find out about the candidates but for the candidates to find out about the ward,” Kelley said. “We need for things to change, and it’s starting to happen. You can actually have commissions and task forces and neighborhood associations working on different projects. They can be part of creating policy. That’s the biggest thing that will help the First Ward.”

Kelley is not alone in asking for more attention for the First Ward. Fellow CCGOTV member Rebecca Schedler sees glaring differences between the First Ward and other parts of Columbia.

“The main thing is our ward has been neglected, and we want a City Council person who will work for us,” Schedler said. “There are changes that need to be made, and if we get the right councilperson in there, we can get that change.”

Schedler thinks neglect is the primary reason the First Ward suffers from a dirty and littered appearance. She and others are trying to combat the trend by creating more of a sense of pride among residents.

“We need to clean this place up,” Schedler said. “I’m sick of the trash. We’re living in a city here. There’s so much that needs to be cleaned. When you walk through First Ward, you see there’s trash everywhere, and it’s disgusting.”

Although Kelley moderated the first two debates for council candidates, Norman accepted the role for the final debate, held March 8 at the Salvation Army on Ash Street. Norman saw the forum as an opportunity to help his community become more active in the political process and the community as a whole.

“We can influence who we put on City Council for this ward, so we can have some direction on where we are going and organize the ward to maximize its potential,” he said.

The CCGOTV has worked diligently, going door to door to pass out more than 2,000 fliers advertising their three forums. Although all the members handed out fliers, Harvey and McFarland did most of the groundwork during the last two debates.

First Ward residents enjoyed the forums, too, and praised CCGOTV for its efforts. After attending the first candidate forum Feb. 3, Catherine Park said she was pleased with how it was handled.

“Forums are wonderful for citizens,” Park said. “This is democracy at work. The more you can open the opportunity for citizens to meet and talk to the candidates, the better. We’re the government. It’s excellent to have these venues.”

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Mark Foecking March 13, 2008 | 8:55 a.m.

As someone with a lot of first hand, first ward experience, I would say that by and large, these neighborhoods reach an equilibrium. Many times, the residents don't see trash or ugly cars as a big deal. What they do see as a big deal are their utility bills, crime, affordable housing, and landlord/tenant relations. The reason Crayton is loved among most of the residents here is she is living all these things. She's accessible in a way that none of the other candidates are (or are perceived to be). Could someone from Providence Walkway just go up and knock on John Clark's or Paul Sturtz' door and talk to them? Likely not.

There are neighborhoods here where the residents DO take "pride" in their properties, and do keep things picked up, but that doesn't mean others are any less proud, or any less good of a citizen. The "broken window" theory is just that, a theory, and still quite controversial. Money has been thrown at infrastructure in poor areas for decades, with little real improvement in the upkeep or resident income of the areas. Attacking the causes of dependency and crime in these areas will do far more than litter control.


(Report Comment)
Mabel Smith March 13, 2008 | 1:24 p.m.

CCGOTV is hardly impartial. For the first candidates forum, one candidate who is a member of this group was observed writing questions that the panel was later directed to ask the candidates. CCGOTV may be upset with Almeta Crayton, as she does not rubber-stamp every tom, dick, and harry issue a few of their more vocal members are concerned with. She does her best to be accessible to all First Ward residents and to hear out more than one side to an issue. This is a contrast to the CCGOTV member, who isn't exactly known for being fair, impartial, or a good listener with folks he doesn't agree with.

(Report Comment)
Pat Kelley March 13, 2008 | 3:23 p.m.

I read the questions at the first CCGOTV forum from three by five index cards that Rebecca Schedler collected from everyone who attended the forum who wished to write down a question. The questions were anonymous, I read them in the order they were given to me. I called on the candidates in order so each candidate spoke first or last an equal number of times and they were all timed equally. Neither we, nor any candidate, screened or had prior knowledge of questions. No member of the CCGOTV was observed writing questions.

(Report Comment)
John McFarland March 14, 2008 | 4:42 p.m.

Mark Foecking's pro-Crayton screed is a provocation to those of us in the more underserved areas of the First Ward, such as the Ridgeway Neighborhood, which conducted a door-to-door survey of residents a few years ago, asking 'What is it you dislike most about your neighborhood?' Over 80% of respondents cited litter in the streets & adjacent properties, then the need for traffic calming on neighborhood streets, as their first and second concerns, well ahead of other considerations, such as drugs, crime, etc.
Even sillier is his assertion of how beloved and accessible Almeta is. When Glenn Cobbins and I went door-to-door in late 2006 to gather signatures for the recall effort petition, we were amazed at how little support she had, especially among African-Americans. This decided us to address the more substantive challenges of revitalization and then voter turnout.
John Clark had despaired of reaching her by any means other than knocking on her door, when, back in Oct of 2006, she unfairly traduced him before the City Council, reading from a factually inaccurate letter widely suspected of having been written for her by someone else. All four candidates are experienced with email, telephoning and sending snail-mail. Even Almeta is responding to callers now, using her brand-new, campaign-ready cell phone. It would be interesting to know why Foecking didn’t smear Karen Baxter as equally inaccessible, along with the other two candidates.
The ‘broken windows theory’ was the basis for the Worley Street Project, started by neighbors, and for the Neighborhood Response Team, a City initiative. Not bad for being ‘quite controversial.’
For the better part of a decade the Ridgeway Neighborhood Association has been struggling to get the City to commit to maintaining the alleys between 4th and E Forest Aves W of Grand, at least to the level they have maintained the same alleys E of Grand. These are rights-of-way owned by the City, which it has chosen to abandon in the face of all common sense. Far from money being ‘thrown at infrastructure’ the City has stiff-armed us consistently on this issue. The most significant improvement to the area was the completion of 3rd & 4th Aves with curbs and guttering using a Community Development Block Grant the City obtained through the Federal Department of Housing and Urban Development.

(Report Comment)

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