Columbia's City Council structure differs from other cities in Missouri

Friday, December 2, 2011 | 4:26 p.m. CST; updated 5:40 p.m. CST, Friday, December 2, 2011

COLUMBIA — Now that the dust has settled on Columbia’s ward reapportionment, the question of whether the city should have more wards or more City Council members has resurfaced.

The most recent discussion was prompted in part by an opinion column in the Columbia Daily Tribune by MU political science professor David Webber, who favors adding at-large members to the City Council. Webber also was a member of the governance subcommittee of the city's Vision Commission.


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The Columbia City Council was created in 1922 with four wards. The only time the city has expanded the council was in 1972, when voters approved an increase from four wards to six. The City Council has seven members; the mayor serves as its only at-large representative.

The city's population in the 1970 census was 25,905. While the council hasn’t expanded in 38 years, its population has more than quadrupled during that time, to 108,500, according to the 2010 census. That includes a growth rate of more than 28 percent over the past 10 years and makes Columbia the fifth largest city in Missouri.

Columbia has a small number of wards for a mid-size city, Webber said. As the city's population increases, representation is diluted, he said, adding that more at-large members on the council would reduce redistricting issues and bring a wider city perspective to the council. 

Karl Skala, a former Third Ward councilman, said increasing the size of the council, especially by adding at-large members, is unnecessary and not a good idea. Skala also is a member of the Boone County Smart Growth Coalition, which earlier this month held a discussion about whether more wards would be appropriate for Columbia.

Elections for at-large positions require a lot of campaign fundraising, Skala said, citing the 2010 campaign for mayor as an example. In that election, Bob McDavid raised $61,625.80 for his winning campaign.

"It favors those candidates with deep pockets," Skala said.

A comparison of Columbia's ward and council structure to several other Missouri cities — Independence, St. Joseph, St. Charles, Joplin and Cape Girardeau — revealed some significant differences. There also are disparities in whether and how much council members are paid. Columbia council members are not currently being paid. But beginning in 2014, ward representatives will earn $6,000 per year and the mayor $9,000 per year. Voters approved that change in April.

Here's a look at the structure of councils elsewhere:


Population: 116,830

Number of council members: Seven

Independence has four districts, one mayor and two at-large council members. Council members are paid a salary of $11,000 a year, according to council aide Shelia Saxton. Some council members have full-time jobs, and some are retired, she said.

Saxton has been the council aide for 23 years. She coordinates the council's calendar, schedules appointments and serves as the office contact for residents who want to contact the council. Independence representatives don't have office hours, Saxton said.

Columbia council members don't have formal office hours, but several schedule regular times when constituents can meet with them.

St. Joseph

Population: 76,780

Number of council members: Nine

St. Joseph is divided into five districts. The council also includes a mayor, deputy mayor and two at-large members.

Council members are paid $150 a month, at-large council member Donna Jean Boyer said. They also receive $200 a month for mileage, she said.

There is a “philosophical difference” between at-large and district representatives, Boyer said. As an at-large representative, she represents every district in the city instead of a geographic area.

Residents feel they can approach Boyer no matter where she is around town because she represents them all, she said.

Fundraising is not difficult for at-large positions because a larger electorate allows more donor options, Boyer said.

St. Joseph recently had a contentious reapportionment process, Boyer said. Residents of the Midtown area were unhappy with an ordinance that would eliminate several "split" precincts because they felt moving voters would harm their neighborhood, according to an article in the St. Joseph News-Press.

The main complaint St. Joseph residents have about their form of government is being unable to vote for district representatives other than their own, Boyer said. However, voters citywide can vote for five representatives — the mayor, three at-large members, and their own district representative — and create a quorum, she said.

Boyer has been in office since 1998.

St. Charles

Population: 65,794

Number of council members: 11

St. Charles is divided into 10 wards and has a mayor.

The city in 1995 expanded from five wards with two representatives each to 10 individual wards with one representative each. This system is better than it used to be, Third Ward Councilwoman Laurie Feldman said.

Feldman publishes a newsletter for her ward constituents and finds that it is easy to interact with them because of the small population. She represents about 6,300 people.

St. Charles council members are paid $850 and are eligible for insurance benefits, Feldman said.


Population: 50,150

Number of council members: Nine

Joplin's council has five “general” and four “zone" members. Mike Woolston is both the mayor and a general member. Melodee Colbert-Kean is the mayor pro tem as well as the Zone Two representative. The mayor and mayor pro tem are elected by their fellow council members.

In Joplin, voters across the entire city cast ballots on both general and zone members, Woolston said. Zone members must live in the zone they represent, but they are elected by the entire population. This is to make sure no section of the city is over-represented, Woolston said.

The St. Joseph council informally discussed the Joplin form of city government during a heated reapportionment process this year, Boyer said. 

Council members are paid $120 a year, except that the mayor gets an extra $90 per month, or a total of $1,200 per year, Woolston said.

Cape Girardeau

Population: 37,941

Number of council members: Seven

Cape Girardeau is similar in structure to Columbia. It has six wards and one mayor. However, Cape Girardeau has 70,559 less people than Columbia. Like Columbia, Cape Girardeau is a college town, home to Southeast Missouri State University.

The city has a good relationship with SMSU, Councilwoman Debra Tracy said. Her ward is on the border of the campus, which Tracy called the "growing edge."

The current ward representation was adopted in 1993. It has not expanded since then. Council members are paid $100 a month, Tracy said.

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