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Primary primer: Karen Miller seeks another term as Boone County commissioner

Incumbent Miller juggles myriad responsibilities as commissioner and candidate
Wednesday, July 23, 2008 | 4:02 p.m. CDT; updated 11:47 p.m. CDT, Wednesday, July 23, 2008
Karen Miller talks with Roger Snodgrass while campaigning for Southern District County Commissioner in the Rothwell Heights neighborhood Sunday. Miller was handing out campaign leaflets and a household safety checklist magnet to help residents prepare for emergencies.

COLUMBIA — At 5 a.m., most Boone County residents are still snug in their beds. But Karen Miller is already busy lacing up her New Balance walking shoes, then walking two miles in roughly 30 minutes. Sometimes she walks with a friend; sometimes she walks alone.

After her morning walk, Miller keeps on moving. These days, that means juggling work on her campaign for re-election as Boone County’s Southern District commissioner with the demands of the job she has held for 16 years.

WHAT’S THE JOB?

The county commission is made up of the District I (Southern) Commissioner, District II (Northern) Commissioner and a presiding commissioner elected at-large. The commission is responsible for all matters of county business ­­— administrative and legislative, public works and criminal justice. The commission handles an annual budget of about $52.6 million for all county operations. Commissioners oversee planning and zoning issues, building codes and the Public Works, Human Resources, Purchasing and other county departments. Commissioners represent the county on committees, boards and other governmental entities. The Southern District commissioner’s salary is $82,014.

Meet the candidate

Karen Miller

300 W. Broadway

PERSONAL: 55. Lives with partner, David Brown.

PARTY AFFILIATION: Democrat

CAMPAIGN WEB SITE: None

OCCUPATION: Southern District Commissioner since 1993, previously owned restaurant.

EDUCATION: Bachelor of Science in business administration,  Stephens College, 2006.

BACKGROUND: President of the National Association of Counties, 2003–04; member of the State and Local Officials Senior Advisory Committee to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security; member of the Missouri Association of Counties, liaison to the Boone County Information Technology and Planning and Building departments; trustee of the Boone County Regional Sewer District; member of the Women’s Network Steering Committee, the Government Affairs Committee of the Columbia Chamber of Commerce, the Muleskinners and the Southern Boone County Chamber of Commerce.

Campaign finance report

Total money raised: $13,397

Total money spent: $9,642

Total cash on hand: $3,742


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Miller is one of two Democratic candidates for the commissioner’s seat. She is opposed by Sid Sullivan. Because there are no candidates from other parties, the Aug. 5 primary will decide the race.

Being the incumbent limits time Miller could spend meeting with voters. Most days, she leaves for work after a few hours of campaigning. Her schedule includes myriad meetings, including work sessions and voting sessions at the Roger B. Wilson Boone County Government Center, or a gathering with members of the Farm Bureau at Boone Electric Cooperative. Some of those meetings are scheduled well into the evening, which means Miller’s figurative clock-in and clock-out times change daily.

Miller is one of two associate commissioners on the three-member county commission, which is the top tier of county government. Commissioners are charged with approving a county budget every year, a budget that was just more than $50 million in fiscal 2008. They oversee spending on buildings, roads, the county-owned fairgrounds, the county jail, the court system and the offices of the county’s other elected officials.

Commissioners also act as liaisons to other county departments and public organizations. One of Miller’s primary responsibilities is tracking county building projects. These days, the details of the Boone County Courthouse expansion absorb much of her time.

Miller said she’s also made a concerted effort to establish better working relationships with other governmental entities, including the city of Columbia and Columbia Public Schools. The commission meets regularly with City Manager Bill Watkins and schools Superintendent Phyllis Chase. She also tries to have lunch with City Council members from time to time.

“Building relationships helps make a difference,” she said.

On the campaign trail, Miller works quickly. She walks quickly during door-to-door canvassing, even when temperatures reach the mid-90s and the sun is blaring down. She rings the doorbell and hands a pamphlet and a campaign magnet to each resident.

“I’m Karen Miller, and I’d appreciate your vote Aug. 5,” she says. The magnet offers a list of items to gather and safety steps to take in the case of an emergency.

“I just want people to be prepared if there’s an emergency and not feel like they have to depend on their government,” she said.

The interaction is brief. If Miller knows the resident, she pauses to chat about the weather. When it’s this hot, she doesn’t expect people to leave their air conditioning to come outside and talk. As soon as the door closes, she moves to the next house in the straightest possible line, crossing yards and ducking under trees in an effort to make the most of her time. In between blocks, she stops at her car to grab a drink of water or a cool handkerchief. Capris, sunglasses and a straw hat help.

On Monday night, Miller made an early appearance at the Boone County Fair. She brought two maps along, one showing the boundaries of Boone County’s Southern District, the other displaying the boundaries of the Ninth Congressional District.

“I put the maps up because a lot of people don’t know what district they’re in,” she said.

Miller talked with dozens of friends and potential voters as they passed by, then left a stack of campaign toilettes at the nearby pork pavilion. Over the course of a few hours, she moved little more than a few feet from her campaign post, but she laughed and talked with more energy than someone who’d been canvassing all day in 100-degree heat should have. She did make a stop by the Boone County Fair queen pageant, but her goal was not to take in the show but to talk with as many people as possible. She didn’t leave until the Boone County Democratic tent closed for the night.

That’s simply Miller’s style, said Dick Burke, executive director of the Missouri Association of Counties.

“Karen’s one of those people who always takes on a job and always stays with it until it’s done,” said Burke, who has known Miller since her first term as commissioner and watched her grow from a quiet newcomer to a strong voice that speaks from experience. She has testified on behalf of the county association regarding tax issues, planning and zoning matters and other statutory concerns. Burke describes Miller as tenacious, dedicated and conscientious.

“She expects a lot from people, and I’ve always respected and admired that about her,” he said.

One of Miller’s main priorities with the association has been to push innovative technology and to find ways to govern better, faster and more efficiently. Her work on Boone County’s Web site and its geographic information system earned her a nod from Government Technology magazine. In March she was named one of the top 25 “Doers, Dreamers and Drivers,” a list that also included California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.

Miller stays focused in the office. During a recent work session on information technology, her cell phone vibrated 11 times in 45 minutes, signalling incoming phone calls, e-mails or appointment reminders. But Miller kept her attention on the matter at hand.

During commission meetings, it is often Miller who steers the conversation toward resolution. She edits the minutes of every meeting, seeking out small errors and misspellings. And sometimes she takes her work home with her, reading about topics such as tax-increment financing or Chapter 100 bonds. She said she also doesn’t mind working weekends and holidays because there’s peace and quiet in the office.

Miller has served on several state and national committees. She served as president of the National Association of Counties in 2003-04, even while she was taking night classes toward a bachelor’s degree in business administration at Stephens College, working with the Missouri Association of Counties and performing the daily duties of commissioner. In 2003 she was appointed to the State and Local Officials Senior Advisory Committee to the federal Department of Homeland Security.

“I have a toolbox of contacts that a new person will never have,” Miller said. “A new person will have their own, but not so many in governance and policy.”

Miller said that when county government faces a challenge, she’s often able to call an official elsewhere to learn how others have solved the problem. She said she met some of her best friends in the world through the National Association of Counties. When they come to Boone County, she enjoys showing them sights and events such as the Hartsburg Pumpkinfest.

Miller grew up in the small town of Lowell, Ind., about 30 minutes outside Gary, Ind. She was the oldest of five brothers, a sister and several stepbrothers and sisters, and she believes that experience set up her up early to be a leader. Her family moved to Scotland County in 1969, and her father served as commissioner there for several years. After moving to Columbia, she opened a restaurant called “The Establishment” in 1981, which she closed when she was first elected commissioner in 1992.

Miller has no children but spoils her nieces and nephews with Christmas cookies, jaunts to Six Flags Over Mid-America and trips around the country. When her nephew graduated high school, she decided to take him to Hawaii while she was there for a national conference. She also took a niece along on a trip to San Diego.

At this year’s national conference in Kansas City, she helped cut costs for a Livingston County commissioner by sharing a room.

“What I value most is being able to share with people the opportunities I have,” she said. “That’s the Girl Scout in me, I guess. I think things like that are important.”

Miller likes to sit on her front porch with her morning tea and newspaper and wave at the bicyclists and people walking by. She wishes more people did the same.

“When people started sitting on their back decks, we lost a sense of community,” she said.

She lives close to the center of Columbia with her partner of 19 years, David Brown.

“He’s the rock that keeps me grounded,” she said. “He’s there for me all the time — he’s bright, funny, solid.”

Genealogy is one of Miller’s hobbies, and she’s been tracing her own family tree as well as Brown’s. At family reunions, she brings her computer and scanner, and she’s gotten a lot of help from the Boone County Historical Society. She hopes eventually to produce family books for her nieces and nephews.

For now, however, that project is on hold. There is no time. Miller already has two jobs to do. The first is to do what she was elected to do, and the second is to win re-election.

“My first responsibility is to do the job I’m being paid to do,” Miller said. “My second responsibility is to get re-elected to use the experience I’ve worked the last 16 years for — what the people have paid for.”


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