Karl Skala enjoys hearty debate in hopes of good decisions

Tuesday, March 9, 2010 | 12:35 a.m. CST; updated 11:35 a.m. CST, Tuesday, March 9, 2010
Karl Skala talks about the city's new sustainability officer in this video. Watch Skala answer 11 questions about issues facing Columbia.

COLUMBIA — If a debate between Karl Skala and Karl Skala took place, who would win?

Those who have attended meetings with Skala know it’s a legitimate question. He has earned a reputation as one with a gift for gab that some appreciate more than others.

Karl Skala

ADDRESS:  5201 Gasconade Drive
Skala is married to Mahree Skala. They have two daughters and a son. Skala’s daughters live and work out of state, and his son attends Missouri University of Science and Technology in Rolla.
OCCUPATION: Retired from MU, where he worked in areas pertaining to psychology, neurology and various research fields. He has been Third Ward councilman since 2007.
EDUCATION: Graduate of electronics and aviation radar repair in 1967 from the U.S. Marine Corps Communications and Electronics School in San Diego; bachelor’s degree in psychology, with a biology minor, in 1977 from Southern Illinois University, Carbondale; certification in biomechanics of human movement in 1984 from Massachusetts Institute of Technology; master’s degree in psychology in 1986 from MU.
BACKGROUND: U.S. Marine Corps, served from 1966 to 1970.
Member of the National League of Cities City Futures Panel on Democratic Governance, 2009 to present.
Member and former vice-chairman of Columbia Planning and Zoning Commission, 1999 to 2005.
Member and former chairman of the Boone County/Columbia Environment and Energy Commission, 1999 to present.
Citizens for Times and Responsible Road Infrastructure Financing (TARRIF), founder and current member, 2005 to present.
Columbia Chamber of Commerce and Government Affairs Committee.
Hominy Branch Neighborhood Alliance, founder, former chairman and current member.
Member of the board of directors for the Meadowlands Homeowners Association. Founder and former chairman.
Skala’s campaign Web site is
His campaign e-mail is

Skala also has a Facebook page.

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Skala admits he probably talks too much at times. He said he’s spoken for almost 20 minutes on a single topic in the past. He also said it is something he’s tried to rein in over the years.

“I still do like to talk quite a bit, but I think I’ve gotten better,” said Skala, the incumbent Third Ward councilman who’s seeking a second term on the April 6 ballot.

When observing Skala at council meetings, he seems to speak as if he’s thinking out loud; he often cocks his head to the left and shuts his left eye, as if he’s changing his own mind mid-sentence.

If an issue is particularly polarized, Skala said, he tries to prepare the best arguments for each side in hopes of making the arguments better and the decisions tougher.

“I don’t want to make a decision based on faulty arguments,” Skala said. “It’s not easy to make a decision based on the best arguments — but it’s the best decision.”

His wife, Mahree Skala, said she knows all about the strong-willed streak that helps Skala discuss and debate. “I appreciate that about him. I need someone I can’t just run over.”

When Skala talks about smart growth or other council issues, it can be easy to assume he has been practicing politics his entire life. He can give historic examples and statistics, and he can provide his personal thoughts on the matter all in one, sometimes long, breath.

Truth be told, though, politics is only one of many hats that Skala wears.

“I think if there’s one thing to say about my life, it’s that it’s all about connections,” Skala said. He’s always found a way to relate his past to his present and to link the lessons he’s learned.

Skala’s resume reflects his broad scope of interests, which jump from music and the arts, to the Marines, to data-driven neuropsychology — and to city politics.

One of the reasons his interests are so broad, he said, is because he has known since childhood that he was adopted shortly after his birth.

“I decided early on I could never be limited by my genes because I don’t know what they are,” Skala said.

Skala was raised in Riverside, Ill., in a family he describes as blue collar and hard working. His mother and father, Skala said, always supported his choices.

“Some people have a need to find their biological parents, and I just don’t,” he said. “I’ve never needed to know.”

At a young age, Skala’s mother introduced him to the arts. He said acting, singing and playing piano and other instruments developed his public speaking skills early. He said he still thinks about it when he speaks to an audience today.

Skala followed his love of the arts through high school in Chicago, and he said he was set to major in vocal music at Lawrence University in Wisconsin. At the time, he said, 18-year-old Skala was contemplating an emphasis in opera.

Before he was officially accepted, Skala was drafted. He decided to enlist in the Marines Corps in 1965, during the Vietnam War. Skala said something about the Marine Corps was more appealing than the Army.

“I don’t know, maybe I watched too many John Wayne movies as kid,” he said.

He never went to school for music after that.

“I scored high enough on the military equivalent to an IQ test,” Skala said. “They decided I was capable of going through their electronics program.”

The Marine Corps trained him in the electronics and aviation radar repair program, which Skala said was rigorous coursework.

Skala’s experience in the service fostered an anti-war mindset to which he still adheres. When troops began to die on base in what Skala referred to as “planned accidents,” it gave him reason to believe the military was turning against itself.

“It was a political war,” he said. “I decided that the politics was just rotten, and I couldn’t support it anymore.”

After his service, Skala went to Southern Illinois University-Carbondale. While music lessons weren’t an option in the military, reading psychology and neuroscience literature was. So he decided to change gears from music to science.

Skala took the data-driven route of psychology at Southern Illinois until the school closed because of war protests and riots in the summer of 1970. After the school closed, Skala took the advice of a friend and moved temporarily to Houston. He jokingly refers to his 2½ years in Texas as his “sex, drugs and rock ’n’ roll phase.”

“It was less about me doing all those things and more about watching other people do all those things,” Skala said. “It was a lifestyle that got old fast.”

He went back to Southern Illinois to finish his undergraduate work and to “get serious about his life.” It was graduate school that brought him to Columbia in 1980.

During Skala’s graduate work in experimental psychology, his interest in neuropsychology diversified. During his college career, he researched a wide span of topics, from human memory and organization of the brain to testing stents and cardiovascular research.

He began to wear his politics hat when he started the Hominy Branch Neighborhood Association in 1998. At the time, George Godas wanted to rezone land in the area from residential to commercial. The neighborhood was against commercial development; Skala said no one would take on the task of starting the association, so he did it.

Since then, his voice has become increasingly familiar on Chamber of Commerce committees, the Columbia Planning and Zoning Commission, the Environment and Energy Commission and the council.

It’s no secret that Skala and former First Ward Councilman Larry Schuster don’t get along, but they’ve had plenty of interaction discussing public business over the years as Skala served on those groups.

Schuster said Skala is the “the face of missed priorities.” His long-winded discussion of topics such as urban chickens and seating arrangements on the council dais, Schuster said, have taken time away from other important issues.

Skala’s data-driven approach to council issues might come from his deeply analytical background in psychology. His wife describes his transition from science work to political service as a “natural evolution.”

Mahree Skala said her husband seems particularly well equipped for local government because he lets things roll off his back easily.

Once, when they were leaving for a trip, Mahree Skala said she accidently backed over Skala’s work laptop with the car. (She actually ran over it twice, Karl Skala said.)

“All he said was ‘Well, what’s done is done. We’ll deal with it,’” Mahree Skala said. She said that unlike her husband, she might have been hysterical if the same thing happened to her.

“Well the computer was obviously kind of squished, but we, remarkably, were able to recover the hard drive,” Skala said.

“Karl is someone who fundamentally enjoys what he does,” Mahree Skala said. “He’s a person who’s able to give things his best shot, and he’s able to move on. He doesn’t hold grudges.”

Skala tends to view issues analytically rather than emotionally.

Schuster said that’s one of his faults.

“There’s a place where things cannot always be data driven,” Schuster said. “If everything is data driven, we lose our humanity.”

If Skala keeps his seat on the council, he said, he wants to further discussion about the balance of power between the council and the city manager. He also wants to focus on smart growth. If he should lose his seat, Skala said, it doesn’t mean he’ll fade from politics.

Or maybe he will.

“I don’t know. Maybe I’ll go back to the arts or music or literature,” Skala said. He and his wife sing in the University Choral Union and travel to music festivals whenever they can.

If ever Skala leaves politics, his knack for conversation no doubt will go with him, no matter what hat he tries on next.


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Dale Jones March 10, 2010 | 8:58 p.m.

The fact is Mr. Skala believes in smart growth. I guess his vote allowing chickens in our backyard is his "smart growth". I have had people from other communities tell me they now called Columbia, MO, "Chicken City". Their comments are accurate after Mr. Skala and other City Councils embrassed our great community by allowing Chickens in our yards. He needs to GO!!!

(Report Comment)
Christopher Foote March 11, 2010 | 1:29 p.m.

I fail to see how advocating "smart growth" is a negative. As a growing small city we should have a well reasoned approach to how our community develops. What we should focus on is maximizing our return on public investments in infrastructure and ensure that Columbia develops into a vibrant town that attracts creative citizens and small businesses alike. Those things just don't happen on their own, they are the result of intelligent decisions made by our city government. In the absence of smart growth what generally happens is new development occurs further away from the downtown, as it is much cheaper to develop on unused land on a city's periphery. This leads to increased infrastructure costs as new roads, electricity and sewer lines need to service these developments. It also leads to greater sprawl and ultimately decreases the vitality of a city as it fragments the community into various subdivisions.

(Report Comment)
Ray Shapiro March 11, 2010 | 3:59 p.m.

@Dale Jones:
I don't want to be surrounded by neighbors with chickens either.
But, if that's all you got against Councilman Skala, I'd vote for him anyway.
I have some very close friends who have made a decision or two which go against my grain, and likewise I do the same to them.
Yet I'd back them up on their sincerity, their integrity and their consistency in a heart beat.
(The council will be able to modify or rescind this particular hen house ordinance in the future, regardless.)
By the way, Karl Skala has been the only councilman, in my opinion, who has rocked the boat regarding council-city manager governance and has the ability to get the elite of the "Country-Clubish Clan" at the Chamber of Commerce all in a tizzy.
If you're for having someone the Chamber's inner-circle can control and manipulate, then don't vote for Councilman Skala.
For everyone else in town, I'd say that having Mr. Skala re-elected will be a good thing for the rest of us.

(Report Comment)

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