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Columbia Missourian

Columbia City Council Candidate Bill Tillotson seeks hands-on improvements

By Hannah Cushman
March 27, 2012 | 6:00 a.m. CDT

This is one in a series of profiles on candidates for the Columbia City Council.

COLUMBIA — Whether it's in his real voice or the mechanized drawl that emanates from Break Time gasoline pumps around the Sixth Ward, the thing most folks will notice during their first encounter with Bill Tillotson is his accent.

Candidate profile

720 S. Rustic Road

PERSONAL: Age 60. He is married to Pamela Sue Tillotson. They have three children and three grandchildren.
OCCUPATION: Insurance agent
EDUCATION: Salisbury High School, 1970.
BACKGROUND: Member of Planning and Zoning Commission, New Century Fund Board, founding member of Community Foundation of Central Missouri, volunteer on the steering committee for Roots 'N' Blues 'N' BBQ.

The linguistic product of Tillotson's Memphis childhood softens his consonants and places two or more syllables where one was before.

But Tillotson is barely conscious of his drawl anymore. "After 41 years in Columbia, most everyone that knows me is pretty used to it," he said.

And, having worked in the insurance business for more than four decades, Tillotson knows a lot of people.

This is made particularly clear one rainy Wednesday morning as he sits behind his desk at the Columbia branch of Naught-Naught Agency, juggling a landline and his iPhone. He adds a new employee to a group policy via office phone while micromanaging the grooming schedule of his 8-pound Shih Tzu Maltese mix on his handheld.

"That's Coco Tillotson," he clarifies to the grooming attendant.

Cow-cow Teal-itson.

Satisfied, he thumbs into his calendar to denote the change in appointment before relating the same news to his wife, Pamela Tillotson, with a text message he deftly dictates into his cellphone's receiver.

While other business professionals might opt for secretaries, Tillotson just can't seem to give up the reins — even after taking on the uphill race against incumbent Barbara Hoppe for her seat on the City Council. His iPhone, wrapped in a practical blue case, is his constant companion.

"I want to control how my time is spent," Tillotson said on an earlier day over an omelet and toast smeared with grape jelly.

This hands-on attitude has been a driving force in the Tillotson campaign. As a business owner, he said the way he's been taught to communicate is through media, hence the signs ranging in size from standard lawn placards to miniature billboards peppering heavily trafficked areas around southeast Columbia.

But not all of Tillotson's marketing strategies have been as benign as a corner sign.

In a move vaguely reminiscent of Gary Kespohl's 2010 campaign tribute to Johnny Cash, Tillotson recently released a commercial accusing his opponent of colluding with the East Campus Neighborhood Association for financial and political gain.

"I can document every statement made" in the commercial, Tillotson said. "It is 100 percent factual."

But the air of mudslinging about the ad, which includes imagery suggesting secrecy and under-the-table dealings, remains controversial, to say the least. Public reprimand quickly bled from the comments sections on related articles to all corners of Tillotson's social media presence.

Just shy of 24 hours into the barrage, however, Tillotson seemed downright chipper about his spot's reception.

The ad "was designed to get the public's attention, get them talking," Tillotson said. It had indubitably met that goal.

Shock tactics notwithstanding, there's also a softer side to Tillotson's strategy.

In justifying the tone, even he admits to having initial reservations about it; he said plainly, "We didn't throw the first snowball."

The snowball he's referring to is a minor scandal related to an opinion poll released in February by the Columbia Daily Tribune.

When Pamela Tillotson posted the rules she reportedly obtained from the Tribune to her Facebook page (people may cast one vote per hour per device), she and her honesty fell under public scrutiny.

"She's not even running for office," Tillotson said, bristling, during a phone interview.

A family man through and through, Tillotson resolved to join the firefight at least partially in defense of his wife.

Teamwork is not a new concept for the Tillotsons, though. In fact, Bill credits their marital success to it.

"She's always been a contributor," he said. 

For 29 years, Pamela Tillotson has minded the house, "her castle," while tending to her day care and preparatory program, leaving her husband free to grow his insurance business.

The couple haven't made any plans yet for their pearl anniversary in June, but Bill Tillotson said it will be hard to outdo the renewal of vows they hosted five years ago. He glossed over the minutia of the ceremony but mentioned one memorable detail.

"Everyone had a glass of wine throughout," Tillotson said. From across a Formica table in the Hy-Vee dining area, he looked like a child who's remembered he can have dessert.

Although he's seen the efficacy of indirect marketing firsthand, Tillotson is not so reliant on advertising that he forgets the power of a knock on the door and a handshake. He has taken to the streets more than a few times to visit the diverse constituency of the Sixth Ward and uncover what issues have them buzzing.

For instance, during one canvassing effort, Tillotson said he met a resident who was disgruntled by the behaviors of neighborhood dog owners. It took only a phone call to the Columbia Public Works Department to have a sign denoting the leash and waste violations placed in the area — a helpful reminder, considering Tillotson himself incurred a $50 fine and one year's unsupervised probation after a violation of the local leash law in 2004.

Tillotson described his efforts to have a sign erected as "just a small item" but said little things can act as building blocks for his relationship with the community. In elections where both candidates are qualified, he continued, people often will vote for whoever shows the most interest in them.

But only so many issues can be unearthed by ringing doorbells. Sporting a red tie at a Muleskinners forum in early March, Tillotson told the group of socially oriented Democrats that his primary concerns are fiscal:

"I'm all about the money problems."

Tillotson's background in numbers informs his political behavior. As a designated certified senior adviser, Tillotson has worn many hats, from bill payer to stockbroker, while catering to the financial needs of his clients. His adaptive approach to city finances follows a similar logic.

In reviewing the city's proposal for self-funded health plans, Tillotson said he identified several places where money could have been saved.

"If I get elected, it will get fixed. I guarantee you it will get fixed," Tillotson said, eyes glinting behind his wire-rimmed glasses.

His unsurprising plan of attack: Do it yourself. He said the council has relied too heavily on consultants in the past, resulting in what he calls gross misallocations in the proposed health plan. Council members, Tillotson went on, should address this and other issues themselves.

In Tillotson's mind, leadership starts from the top down, and the City Council isn't the only body struggling to measure up.

Citing present leadership and internal politics as contributing factors, Tillotson said the structure and practices of the Columbia Police Department also "need some tweaking."

Among the adjustments he'd like to see are better training and reassessed priorities. Students, Tillotson said, should not be the department's primary targets.

As a thriving bloc of consumers, a significant chunk of the workforce and a community-shaping presence, "college students are an asset," Tillotson said. He scoffed at the notion that a weekend patrol should dole out drinking citations along Ninth Street before responding to more serious calls, such as the recent series of shootings.

Tillotson, a District regular, also lamented the public's concern about its safety. He said downtown is one of Columbia's biggest selling points and, in light of MU's move to the Southeastern Conference, now serves an even more important function as a "breeding ground for future students."

And while some might bemoan the invasion of privacy, Tillotson pointed to cameras as a means of improving the public's perception of security.

"If someone's beating me over the head until I'm damn near dead, I wouldn't mind it being caught on camera," he said.

With soapbox-ready opinions on so many issues and a day job to boot, it's a miracle that Tillotson finds time for recreation.  

"If I wasn't campaigning, I'd be golfing," he said.

Tillotson pursues his weekly golf outings — preferably Thursday, but he'll settle for Tuesday if the weather's bad — with the same voracity he does politics. He and his cohorts will tackle 18 holes in just about any condition but rain.

But his ability apparently doesn't rank with his enthusiasm. Tillotson is the first to admit he isn't the best golfer on the fairway.

Jim Brocksmith, a frequent sporting accomplice and longtime friend of Tillotson's, begs to differ.

"Bill's not a bad golfer," Brocksmith said. Tillotson's usual handicap of 12, he said, actually is "pretty good."

Humility is one of several traits that make Tillotson what Brocksmith described as "the kind of guy you just enjoy being around." Others on his list include integrity and initiative.

Brocksmith said Tillotson is a man whose means aren't exactly modest. But his love for Columbia is in no short supply, either.

While serving on the Planning and Zoning Commission, Tillotson discovered that he had more to offer to the city, Brocksmith said. Rather than dedicating another entry in his iPhone calendar to a second weekly round at Old Hawthorne, he chose to lend his assets to a heightened role in local politics.

For Brocksmith, Tillotson's decision to forgo an easy retirement makes all the difference.

"That he's willing to dedicate time and effort just says a lot for him," he said.

For Tillotson, the only complicated part of the choice to run was getting it past his wife. He views his perpetual sense of duty and its drawbacks as he views most things: with a wry sense of humor. 

"If I win, I'll do a good job. If I lose, I'll get my life back."

In a post on The Watchword, the Missourian's blog focused on public affairs, reporter Kip Hill explains the process of developing the questions for the candidate video interviews.