I was wrong again. Regular readers will understand that there’s nothing new about that. This time, though, it’s particularly painful.
Just last week I wrote that this year’s candidates for City Council and School Board were demonstrating the increasingly rare ability to disagree without being disagreeable. That seems so far to be true of those running for the School Board and the Second Ward seat on the council. But not in the Sixth Ward.
If you read Thursday’s Missourian, you know what I mean. Bill Tillotson, who is running against incumbent Barbara Hoppe with the backing of the Chamber of Commerce and the developers, has gone on the attack. He accuses Ms. Hoppe of, among other things, hypocrisy, unfairness and abuse of power.
He complains that she even got, for the East Campus Neighborhood Association, public records free of the city’s usual exorbitant charge.
As Kip Hill reported in the Missourian, the issue was the reconstruction of a fraternity house on College Avenue. The new Beta Theta Pi house was a few feet taller than allowed by city codes. The neighborhood association objected, Councilwoman Hoppe mediated, and the outcome was a payment to the association in exchange for the dropping of the complaint. You might think that was that, and all parties went away happy. Not so.
When I called Mr. Tillotson on Thursday morning, he told me he learned of the situation when a dissident member of the neighborhood association and a journalist turned public relations consultant approached him. The more he learned, the madder he got. He is “hearing rumbles,” he said, that other would-be builders are concerned. That, he said, “sent a pain up my back.”
I asked how he would have handled the issue. He said he would have gotten the council as a whole involved. A “secret deal,” he said, “smells bad.”
The unhappy neighbor is Phil Warnken, a retired MU faculty member and East Campus landlord. Warnken Properties is a $500 donor to the Tillotson campaign. The PR guy is Scott Charton, who used to cover state government for The Associated Press and in his new life has worked for the state Realtors association and the Rex Sinquefield-backed campaign against the earnings tax in St. Louis and Kansas City, among others. He’s volunteering his time to this campaign, he says.
Charton helpfully provided the Missourian with a two-page summary of candidate Tillotson’s argument. The summary describes Ms. Hoppe as “wearing many hats – Council member, attorney, adviser and self-interested incumbent politician seeking re-election.”
As you’d expect, Ms. Hoppe sees the situation differently. She released a statement in which she says, “I am proud to have been involved in suggesting a way in which all parties involved could win — the architect and Beta House avoided a costly lawsuit in the face of a straightforward zoning code violation. The builder was allowed to continue without further delay. With the settlement, the neighborhood association will be able to make improvements that will benefit neighbors, students and the city as a whole. Finally, the city avoided legal costs while maintaining the integrity of its zoning codes.”
The architect’s lawyer, she says, required a confidentiality agreement.
She concludes, “That is precisely what an involved, proactive city councilperson should do.”
Ms. Hoppe’s willingness to get involved in everything from the visioning process to the eviction of trailer park residents is, it seems to me, a high order of public service. In this case, I don’t see that she did anything wrong. If I were on the council, I’d be grateful that she didn’t drag the rest of us into a neighborhood dispute. Too many council meetings run too long as it is.
There is one thing in Ms. Hoppe’s response that I question. She describes her opponent as running a “sleazy, unprofessional campaign.”
It may be sleazy, but it’s not unprofessional.
George Kennedy is a former managing editor at the Missourian and professor emeritus at the Missouri School of Journalism.