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Columbia Missourian

GEORGE KENNEDY: Municipal elections will show how enraged citizens are

By George Kennedy
January 10, 2013 | 4:17 p.m. CST

*CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story misidentified the city department where Bill Weitkemper worked. **An earlier version of this story misstated Sullivan's connection to GRO. The organization does not endorse individual candidates.

You probably remember Mayor Bob McDavid’s observation last year that a politician who wants to stay on the job should be wary of opposing “an engaged citizenry.” It was one of our mayor’s more insightful utterances.

Now that the filing deadline for City Council has passed and we know who the contestants are, we’re about to learn just how engaged — or enraged — the citizenry of Columbia really is. (Our City Council, of course, is nonpartisan. That doesn’t mean it’s nonpolitical. Nor does it mean that ideology is absent.)

At this week’s council meeting, we saw one clear triumph for the power of public opinion. That was the council’s vote to disband the advisory board it had set up in an attempt to placate that opinion about the so-called Enhanced Enterprise Zones. We also saw a couple of aggressive attorneys succeed in stimulating second thoughts about a delay in allowing the historic Niedermeyer apartments to be replaced by high-rise student housing. That attempted delay was supported by many of the same folks who hated the EEZ.

Mayor McDavid has supported both the EEZ and higher residential density downtown. He’ll be opposed in the April election by both Sid Sullivan, who shares the same anti-EEZ sentiment at the advocacy group Grassroots Organizing,** and a newcomer to town named Sam Allison, a liberal refugee from Indiana.

Fellow incumbents and Chamber of Commerce favorites Daryl Dudley and Gary Kespohl will also be challenged from the left. In the Third Ward, we’ll see a third round of the Kespohl-Karl Skala hand-to-hand combat, in which each has won once. Councilman Kespohl backed the EEZ. If the electorate is really revengeful, that should work in Mr. Skala’s favor.

The Fourth Ward campaign promises to be more complicated. Councilman Dudley won three years ago because two progressives split the vote in a ward that usually leans left. This time out, he again has two opponents. One is Ian Thomas, who just left his job as the city’s chief promoter of pedestrian and bicycle travel. The other is Bill Weitkemper, who recently retired as in-house gadfly of the *Public Works Department. His announcement of candidacy made clear his contempt for the city’s current management.

In a head-to-head contest, the inclination of the ward would favor Mr. Thomas. The wild card is Mr. Weitkemper. If the voters are angry, he’s their man.

Then there’s the Fifth Ward, where three candidates are running in the Feb. 5 special election to fill the seat vacated by Helen Anthony. Left to right, they are Mark Jones, Susan “Tootie” Burns and Laura Nauser. Ms. Nauser is seeking to reclaim the seat she occupied for six years, until she stepped down in 2011 after a losing run for the legislature as a Republican. Mr. Jones has worked for Democratic candidates and is now political director of the Missouri National Education Association. Ms. Burns, a banker turned professional artist, has been a leader of civic organizations ranging from the Grasslands Neighborhood Association to the Columbia Art League.

As in the Fourth, a two-person contest would be easier to handicap. I know some liberals who worry that a Burns-Jones division of the left-of-center vote could hand Ms. Nauser a plurality.

When I step back from the immediate arguments, I think I see one big issue that’s accounting for most of our civic angst. That’s the question of how we want Columbia to grow.

Out or up? If we favor higher residential density close in, we’ll have to accept more buildings with elevators. If the university, which really drives Columbia economically and culturally, keeps on recruiting all those kids from Chicago, don’t we want them living within walking distance of campus? But shouldn’t downtown developers be required to provide parking?

And just how badly do we really want the manufacturing jobs we keep talking about? (It will be interesting to see whether the EEZ just adopted in Centralia lures any new employers. Nobody up there seemed overly distressed at being called blighted.)

Good political campaigns bring out a community’s important questions. Elections allow voters to provide some answers.

Let’s make sure these are good campaigns.

George Kennedy is a former managing editor at the Missourian and professor emeritus at the Missouri School of Journalism. Questions? Contact Opinion editor Elizabeth Conner.