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.
“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.”