GEORGE KENNEDY: Hinkson Creek dispute shows need for greater attention to democratic process

Thursday, January 6, 2011 | 3:33 p.m. CST

Five members of our Columbia City Council voted Monday night to recite the Pledge of Allegiance at each meeting from now on. They’d have done better, it seems to me, to require regular readings of the City Charter.

Article 1, Section 2 of that document says that “all powers of the city shall be vested in an elective council, hereafter referred to as ‘the council,’ which shall enact local legislation, adopt budgets, determine policies, and appoint the city manager, who shall execute the laws and administer the government of the city.”

Closer attention to that language might have headed off the argument that lengthened Monday’s council meeting by at least two hours. Closer adherence to the principle that the council minority reads into that language might have prevented the latest eruption in the ongoing debate over who really controls our city government – the elected council or the hired professionals.

The discussion Monday had two parts.

The substantive issue was whether the city should join the county and university in officially opposing the federal Environmental Protection Agency’s latest plan for improving the quality of Hinkson Creek. Negotiations have been going on for more than a decade now, so it’s not hard to understand why the feds, pushed by the Sierra Club, seem headed toward imposing an outcome.

The locals argue that the EPA’s approach – a required reduction in stormwater runoff – is based on outdated science and would be too expensive to implement. The substantive issue will likely be resolved either by further negotiation or in the courts.

Monday night, the same five council members who want to recite the pledge recited their objections to the EPA proposal before voting to oppose it. In the minority on both votes were members Paul Sturtz and Barbara Hoppe.

Paul got to the broader, and more important, process issue when he praised the substance of Monday’s discussion but objected to its timing. He contended that a full airing of the arguments should have taken place before City Manager Bill Watkins hired David Shorr as the city’s lawyer in the case and before Mayor Bob McDavid wrote to the EPA on behalf of the city stating objections to the plan.

“This is not the way to run a democracy,” he said.

 I agree.

Council discussion at a formal meeting or a public work session could have added legitimacy to the mayor’s letter. It might even have led to the hiring of a lawyer who isn’t the longtime advocate of the big developers.

I don’t agree with the position taken by some critics that the manager and the mayor acted in bad faith. I respect them both. It appears to me that Bill Watkins was  just doing his job as he learned it at the knee of the master, Ray Beck. He told me when I called him Tuesday that he was surprised at Paul’s distress and that he thought the council had been kept fully informed. If he had to do it over, he said, he wouldn’t do it any differently.

Mayor McDavid, on the other hand, said Wednesday that he assumed city policy had already been set when he wrote his letter. If he had realized that it hadn’t and that not all council members were in agreement, he’d have wanted the kind of discussion that took place Monday. I think he’s trying to be a strong leader in what was designed to be a weak mayor form of government. I don’t fault him for that.

A better and more democratic process would have been close to the one followed by the County Commission. Karen Miller told me that she and her fellow commissioners met as a group with the county attorney and agreed on how to proceed. That process led to the same position the City Council belatedly reached Monday. The only flaw I see in that approach is that the meeting was closed to the public.

Public policy should be set by our elected representatives in public meetings. That would be a better way than a rote recitation to prove allegiance to the principles of democracy.

George Kennedy is a former managing editor at the Missourian and professor emeritus at the Missouri School of Journalism.

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Ellis Smith January 7, 2011 | 8:56 a.m.

George, it appears we have at least two situations in play. You have addressed one of them, and it's an important consideration to be sure, but some of us aren't certain the Hinkson Creek water quality controversy passes the smell test as either good science or clearly defined reasoning.

Is there even an agreed upon understanding as to the cause(s) of the Hinkson Creek situation? A problem should be clearly defined before attempting solutions.

What, that can be quantified by actual testing, is the desired end result? Zero levels of pollutants? Oh, please! That answer insults the public's intelligence.

If the local governments involved do not believe these questions have been properly addressed they can and should question any proposals being made. That's very much part of their responsibility. As you've said, that should be done correctly.

(Report Comment)
Paul Allaire January 7, 2011 | 10:45 a.m.

The majority of the problem is street runoff. Some of the runoff is undoubtedly cleaner than the creek. Some of it is much worse. Some is easier to divert. Some is more difficult. I believe that if someone were to use those two variables in prioritizing what was to be done we might be in compliance for less than the attorney fees. If someone were to go to court with this and it got to court I would expect that a judge might look at the city and weigh in whether it even made an attempt to do anything.

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