One of the pleasures of returning home after a couple weeks in the frigid north is rummaging through the papers to catch up on the news. A couple of things caught my attention, and probably yours.
The first is the issue of how to fill the vacancy on the Columbia Planning and Zoning Commission. Usually, of course, that isn’t an issue at all. The vacancy is posted, public-spirited citizens apply and the City Council picks. The first two of those steps have taken place this time, but the council is delaying.
That could be because the only two applicants, as I read in the Missourian, are Donnie Stamper and Rusty Strodtman. Mr. Strodtman, whose name wasn’t familiar to me, is an executive with Jose Lindner’s Forum Development Group. Donnie, whose name is familiar to everybody in the county, is the executive director of the Central Missouri Development Council.
It’s easy to see why both gentlemen, and their employers, would covet a seat on the city’s most important advisory board. It’s not so easy to see why the appointment of either would be in the public interest.
Let me be clear. I don’t question the integrity or the civic mindedness of either man. Donnie served us well during his lengthy tenure as a county commissioner.
The only question I have is why we’d want to give such an important role in shaping the growth of our city to somebody with such an obvious conflict of interests. That point was raised in a Missourian report of June 14, and Donnie opined that he would see a conflict only if he had a direct financial stake in a P&Z proposal.
In his case, at least, that’s not especially likely because his employers do most of their developing outside the city limits. My definition of a conflict – and, I’m sure, that of at least some council members – is a little broader.
The livelihood of both applicants depends to a considerable extent on the ability of their bosses to turn pastures into patios. See, for example, that sprawling collection of high-dollar homes out Route WW called Old Hawthorne. And remember that when Jose Lindner bought hundreds of acres down toward the river, he probably didn’t intend to reopen the old hatchery. You may even recall the Development Council’s efforts to influence recent City Council elections.
So it seems, at least to me, that either appointment would be placing on a body charged with weighing public versus private interests someone predisposed toward the latter. The tired old metaphor of foxes and chicken houses comes to mind.
And speaking of development, do you suppose the escalating pressure on our city government to rezone and refocus public policy to lure manufacturing companies will be affected at all by the expert’s prediction this week that we’ll be one of the first six cities in the nation to emerge from the recession?
No? I didn’t think so, either. That’s despite the fact that the main reason cited for Columbia’s likely speed of recovery is that we don’t have many manufacturing jobs and do have an economy based on higher education. That’s true of most of the cities expected to fare the best in these troubled times.
That assessment by the economic forecaster IHS Global Insight follows our Top 5 ranking in Forbes magazine’s list of best small places for business and careers. You might read those reports as endorsements of the education- and health care-based economy we have.
I’m going to go out on a limb, though, and predict that our local Cassandras won’t be much influenced by the conclusions of unbiased outsiders. Anybody want to bet to the contrary?
George Kennedy is a former managing editor at the Missourian and professor emeritus at the Missouri School of Journalism.