COLUMBIA — Some city officials are laughing at recent reports of a behind-the-scenes scheme to oust certain council members, and others are feeling perplexed. Either way, a Wednesday blog post by Columbia Heart Beat publisher Mike Martin has caused a stir.
Martin’s post described a Jan. 22 private meeting at the Columbia Country Club, where he alleged that Bob Roper, chairman of the Columbia Chamber of Commerce Government Affairs Committee, had discussed the need to pay council members and to rid it of “activist” members such as Paul Sturtz, Karl Skala, Jerry Wade and Barbara Hoppe of the First, Third, Fourth and Sixth wards, respectively. The meeting was attended by Mayor Darwin Hindman, several former mayors, City Manager Bill Watkins and former City Manager Ray Beck.
Responding to Martin’s post, Hindman on Thursday night refuted the notion that he had participated in any such discussion. Although Skala thanked the mayor for addressing the issue, he said in an interview Friday that he was confused.
"I'm sort of experiencing cognitive dissonance," Skala said. "Somebody is not quite telling the truth."
Roper and Watkins also refuted Martin’s report on Friday.
"What was really going on is that it was a gathering of a bunch of folks who really like Columbia, Missouri, and want to make it better," Roper said, adding that he attended the meeting to get the others’ opinions on whether paying City Council members is a good idea. Whether to pay council members a stipend or salary is an issue that’s been debated publicly for years.
Watkins said no conversation about ridding the council of certain members ever took place.
"It's not even that this was blown out of proportion," Watkins said. "It's that (the post) isn't accurate."
Martin cited anonymous sources "familiar with the meeting" as saying "attendees also discussed the pressing need to remove 'that guy in the fishing vest' — Mr. Skala — in favor of 'business people who just can't afford the time off to do the job without getting paid.'"
"It's no secret the Chamber (of Commerce) would like a different kind of council," Skala said. "And I have no doubt that the message Mr. Roper got across was that paying the council would encourage more business-minded people to apply, but I'm not anti-business by any means."
Hindman said Thursday that the country club meeting was simply a reunion and not a "cabal" setting city policy behind the scenes. The mayor said that with so many city politicians in one place, it was only natural that the discussion turned to city affairs. He emphasized, though, that the group set no policy agendas.
Former Mayor Clyde Wilson mentioned the gathering at a Tuesday meeting of the Downtown Leadership Council. But Assistant City Manager Tony St. Romaine, who also attended the downtown meeting, said Martin’s blog took Wilson’s words out of context.
"Mike Martin's blog describes a behind-the-scenes conspiracy of some sort as a public discussion at the DLC meeting," he said. In a letter to Martin, St. Romaine wrote there was no factual evidence to back up Martin's insinuations "that removing 'activist' City Council members was discussed by DLC members and that this proposed 'scheme' supposedly 'shocked' the entire membership."
"No conversation like that took place at the meeting," St. Romaine said in a telephone interview Friday.
As far as the label "activist," Roper said he doesn't recall that word coming up at the country club gathering. Either way, Skala said he doesn't mind the label.
"I've been an activist all my life," he said. "And by definition, running for City Council means you're an activist on some level."