It didn’t take long for the changes wrought by the April 6 election to show up with our new City Council. In their first official meeting since the voters chose three new members, the rookies demonstrated differences in both style and substance.
I went to Monday night’s meeting in search of clues to what we can expect from a more developer-friendly and fiscally conservative council majority. It was also my first visit to the new addition to City Hall. If you haven’t been there, you should drop by. The council chamber is bigger and more attractive than the old. Monday night’s 35 citizen attendees were scattered like the crowd at a Royals game.
(I did miss the old Pony Express painting, which has been replaced behind the council members by a pair of computer screens big enough to see but too small to actually read.)
Other than the décor, the most obvious change is in the presiding officer. Bob McDavid is no Darwin Hindman. For 15 years, we’ve gotten used to the old mayor’s self-deprecating style, his folksy comments, his endless search for accommodation. Our new mayor, judging from one meeting, won’t be nearly as folksy, retiring or deferential. In fact, on the only two issues that generated debate Monday, he was immediately assertive, even a bit testy.
The first round started with a request from the new Police Review Board for $4,400 to send two members to Seattle for a convention. After the spokeswoman for the board made the case that attendance would be an important step in training, Mayor McDavid didn’t hesitate to object. He noted that he had paid for his own travel when he had to do continuing education as a physician. You’re more frugal with your own money, he added. And these are tight budgetary times.
Carryover council members Barbara Hoppe, Paul Sturtz and Laura Nauser begged to differ. New member Gary Kespohl suggested postponing the training until next year. The mayor unsuccessfully proposed trimming the trip from two board members to one. When the vote finally came, the mayor bowed to the majority, while newcomers Kespohl and Daryl Dudley voted to deny.
The sharpest exchange came later. It was on the topic of the downtown surveillance cameras authorized by public referendum, over the opposition of the previous council. As Chief Kenneth Burton sat silent but attentive, Ms. Nauser proposed a requirement that, once the cameras are installed, the chief report on their use every year at budget time. In the new seating arrangement, she is immediately to the mayor’s left. He turned on her.
You’ll recall that candidate McDavid supported the camera initiative. Now, speaking sharply, he dismissed her idea as “too hypothetical,” since the cameras haven’t yet been installed. She didn’t back down. She argued that the issue is one of accountability and “council oversight,” especially important because voters in the center city opposed the issue at the polls.
Councilman Kespohl supported the mayor, but the real protagonists were seated side by side. When the vote came, it was again incumbents against newcomers.
I don’t mean to exaggerate the differences. On the majority of questions Monday night, as at most council meetings, the votes were unanimous. Even on the contentious issues, no blows were struck. The police officer stationed in the back of the room remained relaxed.
Still, the first meeting of our new council left me thinking that if it was change the voters wanted, change they got. Bigger issues are yet to come.
(That’s the last you’ll see of me for a couple of weeks. With any luck, I’ll be back on May 14. Enjoy the break.)
George Kennedy is a former managing editor at the Missourian and professor emeritus at the Missouri School of Journalism.