COLUMBIA – Mayor Darwin Hindman and a group of former City Council members talked shop at the top of the Tiger Hotel on Thursday.
The group met for a power lunch hosted by the Columbia Business Times and sponsored by Callaway Bank. They talked about ward reapportionment, council pay, the council-manager form of government and whether Columbia is business friendly.
Hindman, who led the discussion called "Local government in the post-Hindman political era," started the conversation by saying the group should refrain from discussing the current election.
"We are going to have a new mayor, and I don't want to be someone who is telling the new mayor what to do," Hindman said.
Business friendly Columbia?
Is it true that Columbia is not a business friendly town?
"I'll take issue with that right off the bat," Hindman said. "We are a very business friendly council. We might not be as friendly in the eyes of some, but I think those are personal views."
Hindman said that he doesn't believe there is a "homogeneous business group" in Columbia and that the business community includes a wide range of opinions.
The discussion turned quickly to a possible use tax on Internet sales. Even within the group, many members were unclear on how a use tax works.
"We're giving the Internet an 8 percent advantage," former Fourth Ward Councilman Rex Campbell said.
Hindman, though, explained uses taxes to the group and how Columbia might benefit from having one.
"We are not allowed to charge an Internet sales tax," Hindman said. A use tax would cover only annual purchases totaling more than $2,000, Hindman said. It would not apply to smaller purchases off Web sites such as Amazon.com.
Hindman encouraged the city pursue a use tax because other Missouri cities have been amazed by the amount of revenue as a result, he said.
Once the 2010 Census is complete, the city and Boone County will have to redraw the boundaries of political districts. In the city, that means ward lines will change.
"We have to find a way to redraw the ward boundaries no matter how accurate the census is," Hindman said.
The group made several arguments for and against increasing the number of wards, which in turn would increase the number of council members. But there was also some discussion about whether more council members might be appropriate even if the city sticks with six wards.
Former Sixth Ward Councilman Brian Ash suggested seven members is an efficient number.
"If nine people chime in," Ash said, "it's going to grind to a halt."
Former Second Ward Councilman Chris Janku agreed, noting that, other than regular council meetings, it's already difficult to find times when seven council members can get together for a work session.
Janku said city officials need to be really careful about adding new wards, because they don't want to uproot as many as 4,000 residents who expect to be represented by the council member for whom they voted.
Campbell argued that council members are representing greater numbers of constituents every year and that there needs to be as many as nine council members. Twelve or more members, though, would be too many, Campbell said, because that could lead to factions.
Hindman opposes more wards and council members, saying seven allows for a strong "group dynamic."
"You do council members a disservice when you pull away that volunteer card," Ash said.
He explained that he doesn't believe council members should be paid because it would complicate the job by adding a sense of entitlement to constituents council members might be unable to satisfy.
Jim Loveless, who has represented both the Fourth and Second wards, echoed that argument, adding that the "volunteer card" proved useful when he received angry phone calls. He would tell those callers that he was a volunteer and that he wouldn't deal with them until they could be civil.
Janku, however, said it's unfair that council members have to incur personal expense, such as child care, when they attend meetings. He thinks a modest stipend would be reasonable.
The group debated whether paying council members would draw a larger number of candidates. Some pointed to the current election as proof that people are still interested in running for office despite the volunteer status.
"There's a non-monetary thing you get out of being a council member that you can't put a dollar figure on," Ash said after the meeting.
The consensus of the group was that Columbia's council-manager form of government is just fine. Campbell said it keeps a distinct line between council members and city staff.
Ash said that the city manager runs the city effectively and that the council shouldn't micromanage. "Fire him if you don't like his job. Otherwise leave him alone."
Former First Ward Councilman Larry Schuster said having council members involved in executive decisions, such as the hiring and firing of department heads, would only lead to corruption.
Hindman was outspoken in his support for the current form of government. He cited the absence of corruption and the general success of the city.
"We are successful in about every endeavor," Hindman said. "Columbia is one of the best places to live in the country."