COLUMBIA— According to Pam Forbes, the Columbia Chamber of Commerce doesn’t like the First Ward City Council candidates.
“Whoever it is doesn’t like me, doesn’t like Mitch, doesn’t like Fred and doesn’t like Darrell, so I don’t know what you’ve got,” Forbes said in response to a question regarding who made the chamber’s endorsement decisions for the upcoming April 5 municipal elections.
Forbes, Mitch Richards, Fred Schmidt and Darrell Foster are vying to fill the First Ward City Council seat being vacated by Paul Sturtz.
The First Ward candidates and their Fifth Ward counterparts — Glen Ehrhardt and Helen Anthony — gathered for a forum on Friday sponsored by the Muleskinners, a local Democratic organization. The event at Stephens College attracted about 35 people.
All of the council candidates were present except First Ward candidate Darrell Foster.
Candidates were given one minute each to respond to questions posed by audience members that concerned the need for improved infrastructure and the legitimacy and impact of the Chamber of Commerce’s endorsement of candidates.
Richards said high unemployment presented a “clear poverty issue” in the First Ward, and reasonable zoning and development are essential to “grow with the times and population.”
As a self-proclaimed “fiscal conservative," Richards opposes any increases in taxes. “Though we have a budget, I do not support tax increases because they progressively hurt the poor,” he said.
Ehrhardt of the Fifth Ward said increasing tax revenue is the only way to improve Columbia’s infrastructure. “We have to have economic growth because that is how we increase the sales tax base,”he said.
His opponent, Helen Anthony, agreed that Columbia’s infrastructure needs to be addressed. Anthony served the past three and a half years on the city's Planning and Zoning Commission, and she said her experience there has shown her that “we are far behind in our road infrastructure.”
“If you look at the money we have been allocating to road infrastructure, it just is not enough,” Anthony said.
The Chamber of Commerce’s recent decision to endorse a council candidate is only the second time the chamber has made an endorsement of this kind.
The chamber’s Endorsement Task Force chose only to endorse Ehrhardt of the Fifth Ward.
Fred Schmidt said a chamber endorsement for a First Ward candidate would not hold much sway over voters in that ward.
“It’s just the voter make-up in the ward,” Schmidt said. “The people in the ward are not really looking to the chamber," he said. He noted that they might look to other groups such as organizations dedicated to protecting civil rights and liberties.
Richards said he was ambivalent about the chamber’s decision not to endorse a First Ward candidate. He said with a laugh that he most likely was not endorsed based on his stance on civil liberties – particularly his opposition to downtown security cameras.
Similar to the First Ward candidates, Anthony did not take the lack of endorsement personally.
“At this point, if the chamber decides to endorse a candidate, then that is fine,” Anthony said. “It is up to the group and its members to make that decision.”
Although the question of the chamber’s endorsement was raised twice during the forum, Anthony said she was not interested in making it an issue.
"I don’t want to engage in a debate over the Chamber of Commerce’s endorsement because it takes away the focus of discussing and solving the problems,” Anthony said.