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Columbia Missourian

Bormann hopes to apply surveying skills as county commissioner

By Richard Webner
October 25, 2012 | 6:00 a.m. CDT
Don Bormann, the Republican candidate for the Northern District Boone County Commissioner, hosts a barbecue in Centralia to speak with his supporters and fellow candidates for other offices. A resident of Boone County for 36 years and Centralia for 16, Bormann has operated Bormann Surveying for 20 years.

COLUMBIA — Don Bormann drives a bright orange 1987 Chevy Suburban with 190,000 miles on it and decals for his surveying business on its sides.

"I had to replace the engine a while ago," Bormann said, struggling to be heard over the wind coming through the open window, the country music blaring through four speakers mounted to the interior, and the clatter of machetes, mallets, poles and other surveying tools. Blueprints rolled back and forth on the dusty dash and the bench seat.

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Wearing a mud-green cowboy hat, tinted sunglasses and a Western shirt with pens in its breast pocket, the Republican candidate for Boone County Northern District Commissioner began a lecture about fiscal responsibility.

"I want to see that we live within our budget," Bormann said. "I want to stretch our dollars a little more. There's always waste in government, and there always will be. You can't get around that, but you can work to minimize it."

Bormann said his experience running a business would help him make county government sleeker.

"I will listen to staff suggestions on how to reduce waste, and maybe every once in a while I'll point out something they've overlooked."

The surveyor's path

Bormann grew up in St. Charles before it was overrun by the suburban sprawl of St. Louis. As a boy, he would spend his days roaming the town on his bike. 

"My playground was anything within a mile of our home," Bormann said. "It was different back then."

Of the six children in his family — three boys and three girls, the first 18 years older than the last — he was fourth. He looked up to his older siblings, and the younger ones looked up to him.

Bormann tried college three times. In 1969, he enrolled at the Illinois Institute of Technology in Chicago to study physics. After one semester of poor grades and hazy goals, he dropped out and joined the Army, serving in Korea for a year.

"It was a different culture," Bormann said. "At first I didn't like it. Then, during the last half of the tour, I started accepting people on their terms. That was much more fun."

He began accepting invitations to eat dinner in the homes of native Koreans. By the time he returned to the U.S., Bormann had made many Korean friends. But he didn't enjoy the Army much.

"I didn't like being told what to do all the time," he said. He's glad he did it, though. "I learned a lot, grew up a lot. I met people from all over the world."

The self-discipline Bormann learned in the military made him take school more seriously when he enrolled at MU in 1973 to study psychology. He was unenthusiastic about the career options his major offered, however, so he dropped out again.

He spent the next year helping build refrigerators for Hussmann Refrigeration in St. Louis, shooting vanilla-colored foam from a hose into dozens of side panels every day.

"I wanted more out of life than what that was," Bormann said. "It was a good motivator to go back to school."

At his third try at college, and his second at MU, he succeeded. Perhaps it was because his glimpse at working-class life sparked more determination than even the Army could, or because the majors he chose were better suited to his personality. In 1978, he earned bachelor's degrees in agriculture and agricultural engineering.

Shortly before graduating, Bormann began working for a surveying company.

"I liked it immediately," he said. "I knew I wanted to be a surveyor. I get to be outside and help people solve puzzles. It's kind of fun."

Master of his craft

Bormann turned his truck into a new suburban neighborhood on the outskirts of Columbia, where most of the lots were either empty or under construction. He pulled into the driveway of one of the few finished homes.

Well, not completely finished. A team of men wearing baseball caps was stamping patterns into a freshly laid cement patio, and a couple pine trees bound with twine lay on the grass near the driveway. The owner of the home hired Bormann to map the path of a fence that would keep her two dogs in her yard.

After grabbing some equipment from his truck, Bormann marched along the edge of the property to a dried-up creek in the backyard.

"That's 300 feet," Bormann said. "My pace is about three feet."

A nearby stake with a pink flag tied to the top was supposed to mark the corner of the property, but Bormann's metal detector couldn't find the iron stake that should have been buried there. Frowning, he searched through some thorn bushes until he found a bent iron bar. Above the bar, he set up a tripod with a copper-colored prism on top.

"I like surveying in the fall," Bormann said. "Surveying in the fall means lots fewer ticks." He smiled, his bushy gray mustache spreading like an accordion.

A few yards from the prism, he set up another tripod holding a green-and-white plastic machine that looked like the head of an android. He pulled a folded-up ruler from his back pocket and measured the height of the machine, then he punched some numbers into a yellow calculator at the end of a springy telephone cord. Soon, the android head began turning back and forth abruptly, humming a tune of whirs and clicks.

"Good enough," Bormann said after the machine came to rest. "That's within about a hundredth of a foot. An eighth inch." He drove another stake into the ground under the machine.

"Surveying is almost a perfect lead-in to being county commissioner," Bormann said. "I have knowledge of planning and zoning issues and how to maintain roads. I have a good idea of what county commissioners do and what they deal with."

Political experience

Bormann's government service began in 1982, when the chair of the Columbia Planning and Zoning Commission appointed him to a committee rewriting subdivision rules.

"We cleaned up the language and put in an administrative review process," Bormann said. The commissioners approved the suggested changes, which were intended to make the process of subdividing properties faster and easier for developers. 

He worked on another subdivision rewrite commission in 1994, but the commissioners were less receptive. "They ignored everything we did. We were frustrated with the commission."

Bormann's next round of government service came in 2003, when he joined the Centralia Public Library board. In 2007, Centralia Mayor Tim Grenke appointed Bormann to the city's Planning and Zoning Commission, and in 2008 he joined the Boone County Board of Equalization, where he heard appeals from landowners who complained that the assessed values of their properties were too high.

"Some people came in to complain about how much they were paying in taxes," Bormann said. "Unfortunately, that's not what the board is for. In one case we actually raised the assessment on a business owner who complained. He did not like that."

Bormann ran unopposed for Centralia alderman in 2009. Most of his duties have been "minor house-keeping stuff" such as promoting city employees, changing ordinances to reflect changes in state laws and overseeing road construction, he said.

Asked whether there was a larger theme in his political career, Bormann thought for a while.

"I like to be practical about things," he finally answered. "If there's a problem, I look for solutions."

Pulled-pork barbecue

On the afternoon of Oct. 7, Bormann attended a pulled-pork barbecue thrown by local Republicans for him and other Republican candidates at Toalson Bicentennial Park in Centralia.

After a prayer, the 35 guests gathered around a table to scoop food onto Styrofoam plates from the buffet of chips, cole slaw, carrots, baked beans, hotdogs and a heaping tray of juicy pulled pork. On a nearby table, three plastic pumpkins were set out to collect donations for the three candidates.

Wearing his green cowboy hat, Bormann mingled comfortably. His wife, Linda Bormann, sat at a small table nearby sorting through the donations, occasionally laughing or tossing in a witty comment.

Centralia resident Don Bowman attended the barbecue. He said he knows Bormann well but has never worked with him.

"Usually when he starts out to do something, he works at it and does it," Bowman said, sitting at a picnic table and smoking a pipe. "He has a pretty good reputation."

Bormann spent a long time talking with Kenneth Cox, who said he and Bormann had been friends for years. "Everybody in Centralia's friends," he said.

"He's a good alderman," Cox said. "He listens. Sometimes he takes your advice. That's why we need him in Columbia. People in Columbia don't know Centralia's here."

Boyd Harris, a member of the Boone County Planning and Zoning Commission, said Bormann had surveyed for him "more than I can count."

"The thing Don will bring to the commission over his opponent is practical experience," Harris said. "Knowing how to run his business, how to talk to people, his background in city government, gives him an intimate understanding of the things most important to citizens — the budget, roads and bridges."

I'd like your vote

On a chilly Saturday morning, Bormann and his wife parked his other vehicle, a shiny SUV, in the parking lot of Blue Ridge Elementary School and split up to knock on doors in the surrounding neighborhood.

"When I first heard I had to go door to door, I said: 'You gotta be kidding me,'" Bormann said. "But it's not bad. You get to meet lots of great people."

No one answered at the first dozen or so houses Bormann tried. He left brochures under doormats or curled up within door handles.

"As much as anything, it's about getting your name out there and a brochure with your info on it," Bormann said.

Finally, a man answered. "My name is Don Bormann, I'm running for county commissioner, and I'd like your vote," Bormann said.

"Is this a partisan election?" the man asked.

"It is, but it shouldn't be," Bormann said. "It's at the county level."

"Are you are Democrat or a Republican?"

"I'm a Republican, but I've worked with Democrats," Bormann said.

The man laughed and began closing the door before Bormann finished the sentence.

He knocked on many more doors in vain. One man answered his door but said he doesn't vote. Another only asked Bormann whether he's a Christian.

"Yes, sir," Bormann told him. While walking to the next house, he said that although he believes in Christianity, he isn't a member of any particular denomination.

"I haven't found one that suits me yet," he said.

At the last house Bormann visited, Patricia Davidson answered. Bormann  handed her his brochure, and she examined it closely.

"We've only been here two years, and we're still learning about everybody," she said. She and her husband moved to Columbia from Ankeny, Iowa.

"Commissioners are the ones who take care of budgets, roads and zoning," Bormann said while Davidson struggled to make her dog stop barking at him. "I've got an engineering background, and I'm practical. I've served as an alderman and as part of the library board, which has given me experience dealing with the budget. All those things directly relate to the things a county commissioner does."

Davidson thanked Bormann and promised to look more at his brochure.

Bormann walked to the other side of the street to meet his wife, and they headed back to their car.

"You need to break down and get some new shoes," Linda Bormann said, pointing at his bloated New Balance sneakers, which were a nauseous shade of yellow.

Bormann claimed the shoes were only 18 months old.

"Oh, be honest, Bormann!," his wife said. "You've had them a long time."

Supervising editor is Scott Swafford.