Now that our City Council has done the right thing and the steam has gone out of the recall movement, let’s pause to consider what we’ve learned from the Great Ward Realignment Struggle.
One apt pupil was Mayor Bob McDavid. He may be a newcomer to elective politics, but already he has grasped one of its most important lessons.
In his words, “You never want to get in the way of an engaged citizenry.”
His other cryptic comments got lost in the turmoil of Monday’s council meeting, in which the engaged (and enraged) citizenry overflowed the chamber and had its say over and over.
As he voted, His Honor joked that he’d heard from a number of constituents after he announced on KFRU on Monday morning that he supported the people’s choice, Trial E.
His callers did not intend to congratulate him on his wisdom, he implied. After the vote, when the council took a break and I went up to chat with several members, he showed me his cellphone and said it had melted from the heat of those calls. He smiled and added, “Enough said.”
That was a pretty clear intimation, I thought, that he’d been getting pressure from the behind-the-scenes powers aptly described by blogger Mike Martin as the “shadow people,” the conservatives and developers who supported Trial D and its attempted gerrymander.
We learned something from and about others of our elected leaders, too.
The Third Ward’s Gary Kespohl displayed throughout this process a disturbing blend of belligerence and ignorance.
Both were evident again Monday night as he insisted on his mistaken interpretation of the key term “contiguity” and even argued that all the plans except the one he favored should be disqualified.
Then, after City Attorney Fred Boeckmann again corrected him on the law, Mr. Kespohl was the only council member to vote in favor of three of the five alternatives.
When I spoke with him during the break, he said both Trial D and Trial E “were good plans.” Logically, of course, that can’t be true. I didn’t think he meant it.
To Mr. Kespohl’s immediate right at the council table was the quiet man of the council, Second Ward representative Jason Thornhill, who had taken some abuse for what I think was a principled stand.
As he told me on the phone last Friday, he didn’t like the gerrymander of Trial D, but the vocal minority of his constituents opposed having precincts of their ward shifted to the First Ward.
“I don’t have a dog in this fight,” he said. Still, he was going to get bit no matter how he voted.
He joined the Trial E majority even though he pointed out before voting that the areas he would lose were those that supported him most strongly in the last election.
On Mr. Kespohl’s other side was Helen Anthony of the Fifth Ward. Maybe it was neighborliness that led her to make one of the evening’s strangest statements.
She was going to vote for Trial E, she said, but there was “no evidence” that Trial D amounted to gerrymandering. A decade’s worth of election results was evidence enough, along with the dictionary definition of the word, I’d have thought.
Barbara Hoppe of the Sixth Ward did just what you’d expect from a good liberal. “I’m here to represent the people,” she said, earning loud applause. She was a certain Trial E vote.
Fred Schmidt of the First Ward was another sure Trial E vote. He didn’t have much choice. His mother, the veteran activist Liz Schmidt, was prepared to lean on him. And his fiancee rose from the audience to urge the council in that direction.
Which brings me to my councilman, Daryl Dudley. On other issues, he has sought compromise between opposing camps. On this issue, he was unswayed by rhetoric or the threatened recall. His was the only vote against Trial E. He insisted to the end that “politics should not come into it.”
The strain must have finally gotten to him when he said as he voted that he wouldn’t be representing our ward any more. At the break, he asked me whether I’d heard him. I had, as had others.
He shook his head. “I didn’t mean to say that,” he said. Later, but only after a KOMU reporter had tweeted his resignation, he corrected his misstatement.
I think I can safely predict hotly contested races in the Third and Fourth wards in two years.
In a town full of students, our City Council and its engaged citizenry have provided a lively lesson in participatory democracy. Let’s not do it again for a decade.
George Kennedy is a former managing editor at the Missourian and professor emeritus at the Missouri School of Journalism.