COLUMBIA —First Ward City Council candidates focused on downtown parking issues and the work of Columbia's Neighborhood Response Team at a forum hosted Saturday by the Central Columbia Get Out the Vote Committee.
About 25 people attended the forum at the Downtown Optimist Clubhouse and submitted questions to moderator Glenn Cobbins.
Candidate Mitch Richards was again the most outspoken against efforts to increase parking meter fines or levy a new tax downtown.
“Instead of looking for ways to cut spending, they look at taxpayers as cash cows,” Richards said of the city. “It’s arrogant, it’s wrong, it’s not being honest with people, it’s not properly addressing the situation.”
Fellow candidate Darrell Foster said he saw tax increases and parking fines as a short-term solution to a long-term problem.
“We have to look at the allocation of our resources,” he said.
Pam Forbes said the new parking garage is forcing the city to raise fines to pay back the garage's bondholders.
“We were backed into this space," Forbes said. "It’s important to look at how we got here and try not to do that in the future.”
Some candidates also spoke harshly about Columbia's Neighborhood Response Team, which they say unfairly targets residents in their ward.
The Neighborhood Response Team was formed in 2000 to improve the aesthetic quality of central Columbia by citing residents for city code violations.
Fred Schmidt said the original idea of the Neighborhood Response Team was different than its implementation.
“When the Neighborhood Response Team was formed, the sales pitch was a lot different,” he said. “The sales pitch was that they would come around and visit with people who had code violations and sit down and talk with them and see if there’s a reason."
The response team launched another round of walking inspections — its second in 2011 — last week, to the chagrin of several neighbors who say they find the group's approach condescending and without context, according to a previous Missourian article.
Schmidt said he'd heard plenty of stories about the response team from First Ward residents while knocking on doors and canvassing neighborhoods.
“It’s very unfairly enforced,” Schmidt said. “Once you’re in the system, you’re in the computer, they’ve got you on a list.”
Richards agreed, saying the team’s actions could be considered a violation of residents' privacy.
“This is not right,” said Richards, whose platform includes a promise to defend privacy rights. “We’re opening the door to allow warrantless searches.”
Richards also noted that citing residents for code violations would just be another cycle to hurt the poor, one of his largest platforms in the election.
“We’re further impoverishing people who are already impoverished,” he said.
Forbes said she hadn't heard about the response team “picking on homeowners,” but that she did notice its inefficiency.
“We have so many dilapidated houses over here,” she said. “I can’t see they’re actually able to do anything.”
Foster remained ambivalent, especially about the enforcement of programs such as the Neighborhood Response Team, but did emphasize their importance.
“We have to have some policies and procedures in place in order to make our neighborhoods safe,” he said.
Foster's biggest criticism was the Neighborhood Response Team's specification of wards and areas throughout the city, saying many residents of the First Ward don’t have the capacity or means to completely fix code violations.