COLUMBIA — It’s a warm and breezy March afternoon, and Almeta Crayton’s porch is a hub of activity in the heart of central Columbia.
Neighbors visit the quaint Oak Street home just to say hello. A reporter arrives for a scheduled interview of the incumbent First Ward city councilwoman, who is running for a fourth three-year term. Supporters drop in to pick up campaign yard signs. A student photographer shows up out of nowhere to ask whether she can take pictures of Crayton in her kitchen. It’s a special project, the photographer says. Crayton declines, saying her kitchen is too messy. Another journalist calls to get a list of Crayton’s favorite things. (She likes Maya Angelou’s writing, old-school rap and “Law and Order.”) A man in a red minivan drives by, rolls down his window and sparks a somewhat heated exchange about a project he and Crayton worked on together.
Crayton takes all the action in stride while trying to relax with her mother, Colleen Allen, who is visiting from out of town, and her dog, Lady, who’s tethered to the porch because she’s a “chewer” and a “runner.”
“I like to meet my constituents,” said Crayton, who became Columbia’s first black city councilwoman nine years ago. “They’re welcome to come see me.”
Crayton’s involvement with her First Ward neighbors only begins on her porch. Along with her council service, she’s widely known for her charitable efforts, especially during the holidays and at the beginning of each school year. Every November, you can find her soliciting donations for Thanksgiving baskets and her annual Thanksgiving dinner, which enlists dozens of volunteers to feed hundreds of low-income and homeless people. She leads annual collections for Christmas baskets and school supplies, and she’s worked to find jobs for and make computers available to central-Columbia teens.
Crayton’s work goes beyond charity as well. She helped organize a diversity rally in Douglass Park in March 2007 to steer people away from the neo-Nazi demonstration in downtown Columbia. She’s active in National Night Out marches and occasionally organizes meetings to bring community leaders together with First Ward residents to discuss issues such as housing and crime.
Despite those efforts, Crayton is not without her detractors. After running unopposed for re-election in 2002 and 2005, she has drawn three opponents this time around. More than a year ago, a group of First Ward residents — many of the same people involved with the Central Columbia Get Out the Vote committee — demanded her resignation and began collecting signatures to force a recall election that could have removed her from the council. They accused Crayton of misspending charitable donations and failing to adequately represent the First Ward. Although the residents eventually ended their petition drive, they pledged to fight Crayton’s bid for another term.
“We’re going to make sure she’s not re-elected,” Pat Kelley, a resident of the Ridgeway neighborhood and member of Get Out the Vote, told the Missourian in March 2007.
Glenn Cobbins, a Get Out the Vote member and co-founder and director of the Imani Mission Center, was one of the leaders of the recall petition. He warned Crayton in a November 2006 letter that he would start the petition drive if she failed to resign from the council.
“Over the years, you have grossly neglected and underrepresented the families of the First Ward,” Cobbins wrote in the letter, which he shared with the Missourian.
Crayton defends her record on the council, and she denies allegations that she has misspent charitable contributions. She says her charity work is informal and notes that she receives no government money.
“Most of the people when they walk up to me say they’d rather give it to me than the government,” Crayton said. “They don’t want receipts. ... We’ve been doing this for the past nine years.”
It’s been an awkward campaign season, with Crayton participating in candidate forums sponsored and moderated by members of the Get Out the Vote committee who have publicly derided her.
At times she sits alongside opponent John Clark, whom she publicly accused of acting threatening toward her when the council was debating the merits of Covenant Community Development’s plans at Garth and Sexton roads. That plan for a grocery store, apartments and other commercial uses was eventually approved.
Public exchanges among Crayton, Clark and the committee members have thus far been polite. If there’s bad blood among them, they’ve kept it beneath the surface since the campaigning began.
One criticism of Crayton’s tenure on the council is that she sometimes appears apathetic about issues that don’t directly affect the First Ward. She disagrees with the assertion.
“I vote on a lot of things that help the city, but I represent the people of the First Ward,” Crayton said. “We did a lot for the city when we put in Stephens Lake (Park) and the (Activity and Recreation Center). I’m representing my constituents. We need our streets repaired, our sidewalks repaired and new neighborhoods. If cleaning up the ward makes people feel uneasy, I’m sorry. That’s what I was elected for by the First Ward.”
Third Ward City Councilman Karl Skala said he understands Crayton’s role as a champion of her ward.
“Her focus is on First Ward issues in particular, and (they) deal with youth and more problems that exist in her ward,” Skala said. “I understand where she’s coming from with those issues. She’s made a lot more people aware of problems we all face.”
One non-First Ward matter that Crayton became actively engaged in was the debate last summer over whether to annex and rezone Ed’s and Sunset trailer parks for commercial use. Although Crayton voted to approve the rezoning, saying the planned commercial zoning would give the city some control over how the property develops, she worried about the future of residents who will be displaced and looking for affordable housing if the trailer parks close. And she said she was disturbed by the way trailer parks operate.
“The hardship of it is renting a trailer on land that’s not yours,” Crayton said. “They can sell it out from under you, and we need to prepare for that because it’s happening.”
The safety and well-being of children and teenagers are a top priority for Crayton. She’s made several attempts to establish a curfew for minors in Columbia — an idea the police department has supported — but has failed to get it through the council. She believes a curfew would help keep kids out of trouble.
She’s also made computer and Internet access for youngsters a priority. That’s one of the reasons she started the Successful Neighborhood Resource Center, located in a Columbia Housing Authority apartment at 212 Lincoln Drive. The center, however, is frequently closed, and Crayton has been publicly admonished by housing authority officials for failing to maintain it.
Crayton said she’s unable to spend her days at the center because she works as a cafeteria monitor at Gentry Middle School.
“We have computers, but we don’t receive any government funding and don’t have the money to find someone to sit there all day,” Crayton said.
Crayton said she hosts Thanksgiving and back-to-school drives at the center in coordination with other groups. On days when the center is closed, she said, children can use computers at the J.W. “Blind” Boone Center, the Old Armory Sports Complex or the Boys and Girls Club. She said each of those locations has six computers that were donated by the MU Engineering Department through a grant she secured.
Crayton also spends much of her time helping teenagers find jobs, especially during the summer.
“Real job training starts where they can get real jobs,” she said. “That’s how you get the fighting off the streets.”
Crayton argues there are a lot of things city government could do to improve the quality of life in the First Ward. Before she was elected to the City Council, for example, she felt police were more responsive and more involved in the community.
She said she is disappointed with the way community policing has been handled throughout the past decade and reminisced about the days when police officers were more active in First Ward neighborhoods.
“When I came here, they tried something called Fourth Squad, where the police officers got to know the people in the neighborhood,” Crayton said. “We used to play horseshoes with the police and have fish fries with them, but I don’t know whose bright idea it was to stop those.”
Although the First Ward is home to some of Columbia’s most active neighborhood associations— including the Ridgeway and North-Central Columbia groups — Crayton said she wants to see even more neighborhood involvement. She spoke of a strategy that is often used in larger urban areas, where people are organized by blocks instead of larger neighborhoods. She said that would be more personal.
“In neighborhood associations you got five or six people serving there,” Crayton said. “How are they supposed to represent 2,000 people?”
Crayton also argues there are problems with the way the city distributes Community Development Block Grant money from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. The money, which amounts to roughly $1 million a year, is supposed to be targeted at low- to moderate-income neighborhoods. Crayton, however, believes the city spends too much of the grants on basic infrastructure and too little on programs that could change lives.
“You have to have someone come in here from the federal government and explain how to use them and what’s to be done,” Crayton said.
In the nine years Crayton has served on the council, she said she’s tried to be a constant voice for the First Ward, reminding residents of Columbia’s other five wards that there are problems in central Columbia that many don’t have to live with.
“I’ve done the best I could,” Crayton told the Missourian last March after the public complaints about her council service. “This is a hard ward to represent. I try to do the best I know how to make sure that all people are represented and all people are served.”