COLUMBIA — A trip to the city clerk’s office confirms what has often been said: There are few First Ward residents on boards or commissions in Columbia. A quick tally of records of current members of Columbia’s 43 boards and commissions indicates the Fifth and Fourth Wards hold the bulk of the appointments, while First, Second, and Sixth Ward residents come in at the bottom.
A comb through the records of past applicants for vacant seats tells the same story. From March 2007 to February 2008, 206 people applied for positions on a board, commission or task force. Of those, 16 were First Ward residents.
Pat Kelley, a First Ward resident and member of the Community Development Commission, said it’s important that more First Ward residents get involved in boards and commissions.
“At this point, with so many issues in the First Ward, we just need more voices in the First Ward involved,” Kelley said. “Otherwise we’re letting other people make decisions for us.”
The Community Development Commission reviews applications and makes recommendations for how the City Council should distribute federal Community Development Block Grants money each year.
Kelley said many of the projects or agencies that receive money from these grants take place in the First Ward, and being a First Ward resident has given her a unique perspective in her time on the commission. She said many of her neighbors benefit from these projects or agencies, so she sees firsthand the impact her work on the commission can have.
The First Ward’s relative lack of representation on city boards and commissions has become a prominent issue for the four people competing for the First Ward seat on the City Council , which will be filled in the April 8 election. While all four candidates agree it’s a problem, they differ in their levels of concern and in the way they would respond to the issue if elected.
Here’s a look at each candidate’s stance.
Baxter, a licensed practical nurse and former vice president of the Ridgeway Neighborhood Association, said sometimes all it takes to get people to join boards and commissions is to ask them.
“When I was on the committee for the Nuisance Party Ordinance, the mayor just asked me if I would be on it,” Baxter said. “I accepted. I thought it would be a great way to be helpful to the community.”
Baxter said she isn’t overly worried about the lack of participation on boards and commissions among First Ward residents. She said there’s a general lack of participation across all wards in government.
“In other areas like voting and in commissions, participation is low in the entire city, as it is in the nation,” Baxter said. “It’s only a low percentage of people who get involved. In my general opinion, as people in Ward One become more educated, they become more interested and find out about opportunities they have on the boards and commissions.”
Educating citizens about the opportunities of membership on boards and commissions is key, Baxter said.
“It’s just a part of general education and encouraging people to participate. Not everyone reads a newspaper, and that’s the primary place where this information is given. Not everyone listens to news on the radio. Some people don’t know what’s going on in the city so even if they have the expertise, they might not be aware that they could help.”
Baxter said she plans to meet more people and learn who she could ask to fill board and commission spots.
“All the boards and commissions are important to everyone in the city. I don’t think Ward One should stand out except for as a good example.”
Clark, a longtime neighborhood and community activist, said communication within the ward is key to increasing representation from the First Ward on committees. Clark said it’s the responsibility of council members to encourage people in their wards to apply.
“I will go out and recruit people and then I will propose, first of all, that we have no more mayor-formed task forces,” Clark said. “Appointments should be made by ward representatives.”
Clark supports the development of neighborhood associations as a way of increasing participation.
“Now you’ve got people who have gotten together and learned about talking to each other,” Clark said. “It is important to use the neighborhood associations as a training ground so people can get some experience working and talking to each other.”
Clark said neighborhood associations are the natural way to meet people and encourage them to apply to boards and commissions.
“People don’t apply because they don’t hear about these opportunities,” Clark said.
Clark said all the boards and commissions are important but singled out the climate protection, community development and affordable housing panels as particularly important to the First Ward.
Crayton, a three-term incumbent, said the fact that First Ward residents are underrepresented on city boards and commissions is no surprise. She cited the general economic makeup of the First Ward as a primary reason.
“First Ward isn’t as represented because you’re dealing with working families,” Crayton said. “They don’t have time to sit there for four or five hours every night and see no change.”
Crayton has served on various boards and commissions throughout her time in Columbia but said those groups rarely bring light to issues that affect residents in parts of the community that have real problems.
“I’ve sat on 17 different boards,” Crayton said. “Sometimes I’m the only African-American on the board. They’ll never bring up things that happen to real people.”
Missourian reporters Anne Hauser, Rachel Heaton, Jenn Herseim, and Sean Madden contributed to this report.
Sturtz, co-founder of Ragtag Cinemacafe and the True/False Film Festival, said there needs to be a focus on outreach to increase the number of First Ward residents on Columbia’s boards and commissions.
“The boards and commissions don’t represent the makeup of our town, and we need to change that dramatically. There needs to be an amazing amount of outreach done in the neighborhood to let people know that these positions are open and you can make a difference by getting on them.”
Sturtz said advertisements should continue in newspapers, but he favors a more active approach: recruiting. Sturtz said encouraging First Ward residents to apply for vacant board positions involves convincing residents that their time will be well-spent and rewarded.
“We need to go out and alert people through various offices scattered through the neighborhood, put it in newsletters, put it in the newspapers and go out and recruit actively. There’s nothing wrong with that. We need to find talent and say this is worth your while; this isn’t a waste of your time.”
Sturtz also emphasized that boards and commissions are not the only way citizens can be active in the community. He mentioned programs at the J.W. ”Blind” Boone Center, the Intersection and the Voluntary Action Center as avenues for citizens to have an impact on Columbia.