COLUMBIA — As Chris Janku walks along the Bear Creek Trail in northern Columbia, he points out the neighborhoods that peek through the trees surrounding the area: Vanderveen, Parkade, Hunters' Gate.
Janku knows the area well; the back of his house at 206 Whitetail Drive faces the trail. He recalls when the ponds were lagoons built to channel sewage. Reeds, cattails and grasses now surround them to create a scenic venue that walkers, joggers and cyclists on the trail enjoy. It’s a project he initiated in his first years on the Columbia City Council.
At 18 years, Second Ward Councilman Chris Janku has set a record for the longest continuous service on the Columbia City Council. Here’s some facts that put his tenure into perspective.
- The council passes an average of about 430 ordinances per year. That means Janku has voted on approximately 7,740 bills since 1991.
- The council holds 24 regular meetings per year. Estimating (conservatively) that those meetings last an average of four hours apiece, that would mean Janku has spent 1,728 hours, or the equivalent of 72 days, in regular council meetings. That doesn’t include work sessions, pre-meeting conversations or other council-related gatherings such as annual retreats.
- Janku has served with 19 other council members over the past 18 years. They include mayors Mary Anne McCollum and Darwin Hindman; First Ward representatives Larry Schuster, Colleen Coble, Almeta Crayton and Paul Sturtz; Third Ward representatives Bob Hutton (two separate stints), Donna Crockett and Karl Skala; Fourth Ward representatives Rex Campbell, Jim Loveless and Jerry Wade; Fifth Ward representatives Karl Kruse, John John and Laura Nauser; and Sixth Ward representatives Matt Harline, John Coffman, Brian Ash and Barbara Hoppe.
Some of these nearby neighborhoods — including Hunters' Gate, where Janku lives, and the sprawling Vanderveen Subdivision — weren’t even there before Janku began his 18-year tenure as the Second Ward councilman. The hundreds of homes that now line new streets in those neighborhoods are part of the monumental growth Columbia has witnessed in the years since Janku joined the council.
Since 1991 the city has annexed a little more than 19 square miles, about the same amount it added in the late 1960s, when Columbia doubled its size. Columbia’s population has increased by about 45 percent, and Janku estimates the Second Ward alone has grown by 4,000 to 5,000 residents under his watch.
Although Janku views his job on the council as a hobby — and a rewarding one at that, he has chosen not to seek an unprecedented seventh term on the council.
His unprecedented sixth term was enough.
“I enjoy being involved in public policy and public life, but it takes a lot of commitment,” he said, adding that the time has come to take a break and “see what happens.”
His supporters in Second Ward neighborhood associations will miss his accessibility; his colleagues will miss his institutional knowledge, and Janku said he would miss the opportunity to learn about city projects in their earliest stages.
Winning with experience and advocacy
On March 31,1991, Janku ran an ad in the Missourian urging Second Ward voters to vote for him. “Commitment to represent your interests and concerns. Experience to make a difference,” it read.
His experience began at MU, where he earned a degree in political science, graduating in 1973. He went on to law school at Georgetown University and began working for a small law firm in Washington, D.C., that handled transportation law.
“One of their clients back in the day was the state of Alaska, when the trans-Alaskan pipeline was being built,” Janku said.
As a rookie associate, he only worked on the periphery of that case.
Although he hadn’t made any plans to return to Missouri, after two years working in the nation’s capital, Janku moved to Columbia to study for the bar exam, and then got a job working for the Missouri Senate. Thus began a long career in politics.
Working with the Senate gave Janku intimate knowledge of the political process and valuable experience in drafting legislation. He worked as part of the Senate research staff for the Judiciary and Criminal Jurisprudence committees, drafting bills and amendments, writing reports and responding to questions from constituents.
“It did help me when I ran and when I served on the council because I understood how legislation is drafted, how amendments are made, things like that,” Janku said.
Janku also served on the Parks and Recreation Commission, the Columbia Tomorrow Committee, the MLK Memorial Committee and a committee on street financing and policy.
On April 2, 1991, Janku beat his opponent, real estate dealer Chris Burnam, with an impressive 72 percent of the vote. A Columbia Daily Tribune reporter wrote the next day that “Columbia voters … cast a solid vote in favor of environmental protection and neighborhood advocacy in two separate ward races, ratifying a trend toward a more activist-minded City Council.”
Support from neighborhood associations might have tipped the balance in his favor, and Janku has tried to maintain their support throughout his tenure. In his six bids for terms on the council, no challenger ever came close to beating him in an election.
Janku has gone to bat for neighborhood associations on many occasions. Peter Anger of the Parkade Neighborhood Association said he is has been pleased with Janku’s performance and some of the major projects he has pushed.
“He got the Bear Creek Trail established in the neighborhood, on the edge of Parkade, and he got the circle drive created at the intersection of Business Loop and Creasy Springs,” Anger said, recalling that the roundabout replaced a convoluted intersection that was the site of frequent accidents.
Annette Kolling-Buckley of the Northland-Parker Neighborhood Association remembers Janku’s willingness to help with a zoning issue in their neighborhood back in the early 1990s. And recently, she and several other Second Ward residents called upon Janku to help them restore the name “Albert” to Albert-Oakland Park.
“Whenever we need him for anything, all we have to do is call him, and he shows up,” Kolling-Buckley said.
Diane Oerly of Oakland Manor Neighborhood Association said she also has found Janku to be attentive and unbiased.
“Some of the other council people seem to have a particular agenda, or audience, that they’re trying to satisfy, and Chris has always been objective and he doesn’t support necessarily one perspective over the other,” she said.
At 5:30 p.m. on a Monday evening, the council members and staff file into the conference room off the chambers where the evening’s budget session takes place. Janku arrives in a Columbia T-shirt, carrying a shoulder bag stuffed with papers and a binder several inches thick under his arm.
During the meeting, Janku both asks and answers technical, detailed questions about procedure and the budget. At one point someone wonders aloud how many police have been hired in the past three years; Janku dives into his binder and finds the answer.
Janku’s colleagues praise his political instincts, his willingness to help and his careful arguments, but above all they most appreciate his institutional memory. Ask him about any city matter that’s surfaced over the past two decades, and most likely he knows the ins and outs of the issue.
“I would call him the encyclopedia of the council,” Fifth Ward Councilwoman Laura Nauser said. “I am amazed at the amount of stuff he has retained over the years.”
One topic Janku knows backward and forward is development.
In a 1991 pre-election interview, Janku said he favored more attention to zoning decisions and adherence to a land-use plan. Creating standards for new development in Columbia has been on the council’s to-do list since the early 1990s, he said.
“This is what we tried to do: to put standards in place that were quality standards, whether it’s landscaping, signage, lighting,” Janku said, referring to comprehensive ordinances that council has passed addressing all those matters since he came aboard. “Once we could get clear standards in place that the community supported we would have less reason for the city council to get involved and micromanage.”
Although the council has made progress on ordinances regulating tree removal, the size, location and numbers of signs allowed and the management of storm-water, Janku emphasized that the process is ongoing as new circumstances arise.
The council has faced myriad development decisions that have been among the most controversial votes Janku has had to cast. He said he has approached those votes with careful consideration of a number of factors.
Aside from reading the materials provided by the city staff on a given issue, Janku said he weighs all the testimony offered by the various stakeholders. He thinks about how the issue fits into his own system of values, as well as the promises he made during his campaigns. He tries to consider the concerns his constituents might have about a project. If the issue affects the city as a whole, he said he votes on what’s best for the city, not just the Second Ward.
Janku has faced some whopper issues in his time on the council.
There was the question in the early 1990s about whether the city should add sexual orientation to the list of protected categories in its anti-discrimination ordinance. Janku voted for it. There was also a question of whether the city should fund the Interact Teen-to-Teen Theater, a troupe of teenagers who traveled to schools and other venues to teach peers about safe sex and other adolescent issues. Its connection with Planned Parenthood created a split in the community and led to public hearings that packed the council chambers and lasted for hours. Janku favored the funding.
More recently, there was the question in spring 2004 of whether to annex the former 489-acre Philips tract, which at the time marked the largest voluntary annexation in the city’s history. Some argued it would promote sprawl, compromise sensitive watersheds and ruin a piece of property that might be better left in its natural state. The developer argued it was a good plan that represented orderly growth that is healthy for the city. Janku voted for it.
Then, in 2005, there was the question of whether to approve zoning for the Walmart SuperCenter at Broadway and Fairview Avenue. Janku opposed it, arguing the plan was a good one, but not so good for the neighborhood.
Finally, in the fall of 2006, Janku was among four council members who voted for the smoking ban, but he also was the one who pushed an amendment clarifying that smoking would be allowed in some patio areas.
Despite having to wrestle with controversial issues and occasionally disagreeing with his colleagues, Janku said he has focused on maintaining good relationships among council members.
“When you decide on an issue, or speak on an issue, you acknowledge other people, the valid points they might have,” he said. “You try not to disagree in a disagreeable way.”
His council colleagues say he has succeeded at that.
“His institutional memory and his ability to make good arguments to support his points, we’re going to miss that,” Mayor Darwin Hindman said. “And I doubt that it’s possible for somebody to come on and replace that ability, at least in the short term.”
Time to move on
Is Janku following the old adage about leaving something better than you found it?
“I think there’s been a lot of positive changes,” he said, mentioning again the standards for development that have been put in place.
Janku also has been supportive of funding for cultural activities. He favored establishing the Office of Cultural Affairs, which passed on a 4-3 vote, and he has supported increased funding for programs such as the Roots ’N’ Blues ’N’ BBQ Festival and the True/False Film Festival.
“Nowadays you have a lot of cultural activities within the community,” Janku said. “You used to think you’d have to go to St. Louis or Kansas City.”
A lot has changed in the Second Ward. When Janku took office, the city’s north side had no trails comparable to the MKT Trail. Now the Bear Creek Trail stretches from Albert-Oakland Park to Cosmopolitan Park. Spur trails shoot off it, allowing users to amble around wooded areas along the creek. A dog park has been added to the Garth Nature Area, which itself was a vacant field not so long ago.
Range Line Street is being rebuilt, and signals have been added at its major intersections. The extension of Providence Road from Vandiver Drive to Blue Ridge Road – a project that’s been in the city’s plans for decades, is finally getting done. A new fire station is planned for the corner of Providence and Blue Ridge roads.
Janku declared some of the projects to be his priorities when he ran for a sixth term in 2006. Seeing them either in place or on the way, he said he’s ready to pass the baton.
“Well, you know there’s always work to be done, and I can’t say that the work’s done,” he said. “The community’s not static.”
Soon, Janku will be replaced by either Allan Sharrock or Jason Thornhill, the two men running to succeed him. Janku plans to continue much of his life as usual, but he’ll have far more free time.
He will continue his full-time job as director of programs at the Missouri Bar, where he has been since 1985. His primary role there is to ensure that lawyers on the bar get the necessary continuing education. He also works on a commission that helps return money to clients who’ve had it stolen by attorneys.
And, of course, he will continue to run, a favorite pastime of his since he ran cross-country in high school. Janku often can be found running along the streets of the Second Ward, picking up litter along the way. Perhaps he will work on his 5K time, which was under 24 minutes at this year’s "First Night Run," an event he introduced to Columbia. He used to be able to run a 5K in 21 minutes, but that was 20 years ago, he said.
Janku also will have more time for gardening, another hobby he has had to let fall by the wayside while focusing on council matters. He tends to flowers in his wooded backyard, which overlooks the Bear Creek Trail. Oerly, who used to live on the same street as Janku, said he grows beautiful rose bushes. But vegetables, Janku said, are out of the question because of the trees and the deer in his neighborhood.
He and his wife, Anne, whom he met at a race in the mid-1990s, will have more time to travel and to see their three children, Joseph, Maria and Kristina. Last year the family gathered at the South Carolina beaches, where Anne’s family lives. Janku said he hopes a freer schedule will make it easier for them to visit the kids in Indiana, Michigan and Georgia and to meet up at a beach, be it in South Carolina or Mexico.
Although he’s giving up his seat on the council, and he’s looking forward to some extra time, Janku said that doesn’t mean he’ll retire altogether from public life. At 56, Janku plans to leave his options open.
“I might like to get involved in some other activities," he said, "but I haven’t decided which ones.”