COLUMBIA — State Representative Chris Kelly, D-Columbia, came to the microphone in defense of Columbia City Council members during a town-hall style discussion Thursday evening about the establishment of an enhanced enterprise zone.
“There’s nobody on the City Council who ought to be recalled,” Kelly said, referencing efforts by the civil liberties group Keep Columbia Free to recall First Ward Councilman Fred Schmidt. “That’s probably why they’re not here. They’re pissed off.”
From the audience of more than 60 people, someone asked, “Why?”
“I’m telling you how I would feel,” Kelly said, adding that council members had good intentions in supporting the EEZ.
"They don't listen to us," another audience member commented.
After a few moments of back and forth with audience members, the tension broke after Kelly asked, “Who’s us?”
Nestor Mackno, an Occupy CoMo member, shouted, “the 99 percent,” and laughter broke out.
“I’m just giving you my opinion as someone who’s represented this community,” Kelly said before Monta Welch took control of the microphone and urged calm. Welch, a Columbia Climate Change Coalition member, moderated the discussion.
The event at the Columbia Public Library featured speaker Greg LeRoy, the executive director and founder of Good Jobs First. His organization supports government and corporate accountability in economic development. He spoke strongly against the effectiveness of an enhanced enterprise zone and urged instead the use of more targeted incentives for individual businesses.
LeRoy said tax incentives such as an EEZ would not change the behavior of businesses.
An EEZ is a state tax incentive program for areas declared blighted that also provides for local property tax abatement. The City Council recently re-established an advisory board to work on an application to create an EEZ.
"All state and local taxes combined come to just over 1 percent of their total cost structure,” LeRoy said. “Tiny, tiny changes in the cost of labor or energy would dwarf any changes in taxes.”
Karl Skala, a former council member, also spoke and answered audience questions. He read the definition of blight according to the state of Missouri and said he was worried about the psychological effects of labeling an area blighted.
“If you really want a protection against blight, we need to change the city charter,” Skala said.
Concern about the blight designation and the EEZ initiated the recall efforts of Keep Columbia Free. Mitch Richards, the treasurer of the group, spoke during the question-and-answer period and invited people to sign the recall petition.
“I guess I just wanted to point out that the recall option is in the city charter for a reason,” Richards said, referencing Kelly’s comments. “No one supports this but the people in power.”
Kelly clarified his earlier remarks later in the discussion and said they were directed at the recall efforts only.
“My comments before had nothing to do with the attack on the ordinance and everything to do with the attack on the personalities,” Kelly said.
Many of the questions from the audience dealt with the issue of blight and the possibility of eminent domain abuse. Tyree Byndom, a community activist, said he was encouraged by the discussion. Although he’s opposed the blight designation, he said he’s starting to see the other sides of the issue.
“I’m willing to compromise, and that’s saying a lot,” Byndom said. “I felt that this gave us some answers.”
Mackno said the discussion demonstrated that most Columbia residents oppose the blight designation that would be required to establish an EEZ.
“I think most people are against the blight,” Mackno said.
The event was sponsored by Citizens InVolved and InVested in Columbia, Keep Columbia Free, the National Organization for Women, the Mid-Missouri Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom and the Columbia Climate Change Coalition.
Supervising editor is John Schneller.