COLUMBIA — First Ward City Council candidate John Clark begins every candidate forum the same way: smiling, surveying the room and asking who among the audience lives in the First Ward.
When residents raise their hands, he offers voter registration cards to those who have yet to fill them out.
It’s a simple gesture, but one that illustrates Clark’s enthusiasm for giving the First Ward a larger voice in city affairs.
Quick to offer strong opinions on a multitude of subjects, Clark’s background as a neighborhood activist, certified public accountant, attorney and two-time candidate for mayor is apparent. He is meticulously well-researched on nearly every aspect of Columbia government, and he’s ready to share that expertise with anyone who will listen — for a long, long time.
Just as Clark seems unable to succinctly summarize his complicated visions for Columbia, there also is no easy way to explain what makes him tick.
Clark has a 15-page “activity/experience resume” that lists every community activity, meeting or board he has been involved with over the past 15 years. And there are a bunch of them: the North-Central Columbia Neighborhood Association; the Citizens’ Chronic Nuisance Property Abatement Ordinance Planning Group; the Corner Action Committee; the Bicycle/Pedestrian Commission; the Columbia/Boone County Community Partnership; the Infrastructure Cost Committee of the Boone County Smart Growth Coalition. The list goes on and on.
Clark is also a frequent speaker at public hearings before the City Council and rarely misses the chance to participate in citywide planning initiatives, such as the visioning effort that recently wrapped up. You might include him in the group of citizens labeled “civically obsessed.” There’s very little in municipal government that he has no opinion about.
Clark’s persona is as strong as his opinions. He has a tendency to lean in and get very close to the people he’s talking to, and he casts an imposing figure as he towers over most. He’s particularly intense when trying to explain a complex issue. He offers detailed histories on virtually any subject with a degree of animation that demands his listener become as invested in the topic as he is.
Clark is long-winded, and he doesn’t apologize for it. Anyone interviewing him must choose his or her questions carefully. Asked why he’s so passionate about Columbia city government, he takes 45 minutes to answer, mentioning the Cold War, his father’s childhood, his stint at Yale University and his Unitarian Universalist beliefs.
What comes through most clearly, however, is Clark’s interest in getting people to work productively in small groups, particularly in neighborhood associations. No matter what the issue, he thinks positive change will come through the development and support of neighborhood associations.
Clark takes nearly every opportunity to describe himself as a “neighborhood association person.” He said he has worked with people over the years who used to be completely ineffective communicators but who can now make real changes in their neighborhoods because of their experience with neighborhood associations.
“If you have more people working together, you have more good ideas,” Clark said. “You can share some overall goals and what the things are we can do to get them. Neighborhood associations are about showing people how to do this.”
Despite his proclaimed affinity for helping people work together, Clark can at times be divisive. “Offensive” is among his favorite words. Many things are “offensive” to Clark, including the policies and some personalities in city government and requests that he makes his answers more concise.
“The way things are run here is offensive, discriminatory and sloppy,” Clark said. “And it is a problem trying to convey complex ideas. It is impossible to convey 15 years of experience in three sentences.”
John McFarland, secretary of the Ridgeway Neighborhood Association and member of the Central Columbia Get Out the Vote Committee, has been a longtime supporter of Clark. McFarland said he has known Clark for 15 years and that there is no question he is the most articulate and knowledgeable candidate.
“John is ready and raring to go,” McFarland said. “He would be totally effective from day one.”
McFarland said Clark helped the Ridgeway Neighborhood Association become more organized and effective.
“He conducted envisioning and planning workshops,” McFarland said. “He got us the information we needed and walked us through everything.”
McFarland said he not only supports Clark because of his experience and knowledge but also because he knows Clark will be accessible to constituents.
“He’s got the facts at his fingertips all the time,” McFarland said. “John would make a very nice difference.”
Dennis Murphy, Clark’s campaign treasurer for his First Ward and both mayoral campaigns, said Clark probably knows more about the issues than the other three candidates combined.
“The First Ward is such a diverse district, and he’s got a pretty good handle on those areas,” Murphy said. “He can start from the first day and know what’s going on. He’s so involved he doesn’t need any kind of warm-up.”
Murphy and Clark have known each other for 30 years, and Murphy said he has always supported Clark.
“He’s passionate,” Murphy said. “Some people see the passion and take it for uncooperativeness, but I think the First Ward needs a bulldog in the City Council to advocate for the people.”
The passion Clark has for the city appears to carry into all facets of his life. Clark works as a financial officer for KOPN/89.5 FM. The offbeat atmosphere at KOPN — which includes his work on KOPN’s yearly pledge drive and discussions about all genres of music — seems to suit Clark perfectly. He was eager to share every detail of his work and what KOPN does. He was upbeat, almost jovial, as he described the filing system for KOPN’s more than 70,000 vinyl records.
KOPN general manager David Owens said Clark is very responsible, a self-starter who serves as a leader on the KOPN staff.
“I think he would be very, very informed, accessible and speak his mind,” Owens said of Clark’s ability to be an effective First Ward representative.
Owens said he works well with Clark but can see how some might perceive Clark as difficult to work with.
“He has his opinions and does his homework. He can be impatient with those who haven’t,” Owens said. “He doesn’t just give up, and he doesn’t just accept other people’s opinions. He has a lot to say, and sometimes you have to wait, but he will listen.”
Owens said he always hears Clark out and values his input on decisions at KOPN. Owens also said he doesn’t agree with people being intimidated by Clark’s vast knowledge and strong opinions.
“Are you going to accept somebody who is less informed because you can get along with them?” Owens asked. “People should attend to the resources they have in the community. I would have missed out on a really good employee if I would have been intimidated by that.”
Third Ward Councilman Karl Skala said it’s not a question of being intimidated by Clark but a question of what he perceives as Clark’s need for his opinions to prevail. Skala has known Clark more than 10 years through neighborhood associations and working with him closely as a member of Citizens for Timely and Responsible Road Infrastructure Financing in 2005. Clark eventually left the group over a dispute with Skala.
“(Clark) is very capable in terms of how he processes information,” Skala said. “He has good instincts, and at times he is very difficult to work with in small groups. ‘Irrepressible’ might be the best word to describe him.”
McFarland said that regardless of personality, Clark is the most informed of the four candidates.
“I just don’t agree with your emotional reaction to John Clark deciding your vote,” McFarland said. “We deserve John, and he deserves a chance. There’s no contest in my mind.”
Clark acknowledges the criticism others have of him.
“People say I’m abrasive; people think I can dominate things,” Clark said. “But I disagree with them. The people who worked with me may disagree, too.”
It’s true that Clark promptly returns calls and is always eager to answer questions and explain the details of some of Columbia’s more complicated issues. At times, however, he demands to be asked another question after straying too far from the previous one. And he’s not shy about insulting his fellow candidates or people in city government, sometimes referring to them as “completely incompetent” or “obnoxious.” He truly thinks his stances are more intelligent.
Clark appears to be most calm when he practices the Chinese martial art of tai chi in the gym of the Old Armory Sports Center. To do so correctly, he said, one must focus on the present action, but he sometimes brings a pen and paper to class in case he wants to jot down thoughts to remember later.
After demonstrating some tai chi positions, complete with background music, Clark sat down to talk, covering the back problems that sparked his interest in tai chi in the first place, various concepts of psychoanalysis and the importance of truly listening to people when they talk.
Still, throughout this widely varied conversation, Clark found a way to use every part of his life to characterize himself as a dynamic leader and community organizer. He said tai chi used to be offered on Mondays, Fridays and Saturdays, but he took the initiative to organize tai chi on Wednesdays, too. And the participants in the class thanked him for it.
Clark talked about the importance of physical balance in his life through practicing tai chi, and more important to him, how that relates to what he sees as a need for balance in Columbia.
“The thing that is killing us is an unbelievable lack of planning,” he has said on several occasions.
Clark is determined to set Columbia on a path toward balance and harmony. On a recent Sunday afternoon, he walked up and down the street, picking up discarded cans and putting them in blue recycling bags. He emphasizes the importance of taking care of neighborhoods, and he applies that care starting with his own street.
Based on the inside of his house, which still has leftover stacks of “Clark for Mayor 2007” yard signs and campaign literature and features at least two maps of Columbia on the walls, the care for the First Ward that Clark touts at forums is clearly not an act. It’s his way of life.
Whether voters select him to represent the First Ward on the council, it is likely that after 15 years of continual involvement with the city, Clark will continue on.
“Most importantly, I’m running to get elected,” Clark said. “I’m running to be a council person, an advocate and a representative for the First Ward.”