City attorney to retire after 26 years on the job

Thursday, January 31, 2013 | 6:00 a.m. CST; updated 6:40 a.m. CST, Friday, February 1, 2013
Mayor Bob McDavid, left, gives recognition to Fred Boeckmann, city counselor, during his last meeting with the City Council on Jan. 22 at City Hall. Boeckmann has worked with the council for 26 years. Boeckmann is retiring Friday.

COLUMBIA — Columbia assistant city counselor Rose Wibbenmeyer made one thing very clear to city attorney Fred Boeckmann back in the early 1990s.

A law student at the time, she ran into Boeckmann, one of her career role models, in the video rental area at Schnucks. She bluntly told him that she wanted to work for him.

“He laughed, and he’s just like, ‘Why would you ever want to do that?’” she said. “And I’m like, ‘No, really, I’m serious, I want to work for you someday.’”

Now, about two decades after that run-in, Wibbenmeyer has been working alongside Boeckmann for years. She smiles as she talks about having watched him at Columbia City Council meetings back when she was in law school.

“He seemed to always know exactly what was going on,” she said about her impressions from watching him, mostly on TV. “He had an incredible amount of knowledge in his head.”

Boeckmann's 26-year tenure as city attorney is about to come to a close, though. Friday will be his last day on the job. By that time, he said, city officials will already be interviewing candidates for his replacement.

Working in Columbia

Boeckmann’s office doesn't fit the stereotype of a government employee’s messy desk with empty coffee mugs and mounds of papers. It resides in the corner of the Law Department on the second floor of the Daniel Boone City Building. His walls are mostly bare, aside from a few items he put on display for passers-by.

Two plaques hang on the wall to the left of the door. One commemorates his time as the city attorney in Cape Girardeau, a position he held for four years before his career move to Columbia in 1986. The other is the Missouri Municipal Attorneys Assocation's Lou Czech Award — the highest honor bestowed upon municipal attorneys in Missouri — that Boeckmann received in 2004.

Even Boeckmann is surprised by the amount of time he's spent with the city.

“I figured, you know, maybe four or five years,” he said. He, his wife and his four children, however, soon found themselves settled in Columbia.

Mayor Bob McDavid took time out of last week's council meeting to commemorate Boeckmann’s time with the city by presenting him with a mock resolution in his honor. McDavid and Boeckmann share a special bond, a Feb. 20 birthday — though McDavid was born seven hours earlier.

“He thinks that extra seven hours gives him a head start on me on wisdom, I think,” Boeckmann said. 

Hank Stoltz, former assistant city counselor who now works part time in the Law Department, said Boeckmann is someone you'd want in your group of applicants, if you were trying to hire someone.

“In this case, he’s a lawyer,” Stoltz said. “You’d want him on your side.”

Life at home

Boeckmann, a native of St. Louis, attended St. Vincent’s College in Cape Girardeau for high school and went on to St. Mary’s Seminary in Perryville, where he studied history and philosophy. He earned his law degree from St. Louis University, where he met his wife, Kathy Boeckmann, while working at the St. Louis County Law Library.

“I’m waiting to hear that they’ve closed,” Boeckmann said of St. Louis University; it's the only school he’s attended that's still open.

After earning his law degree, Boeckmann spent eight years working in St. Louis County at his solo practice and then at Boeckmann and Wright, which later grew to be Boeckmann, Wright and Charwhere. He eventually got into working with municipalities and multiple fire districts before he took the Cape Girardeau job.

In Columbia, Boeckmann has gone to trial only twice, he said, whereas in Cape Girardeau it was a more common occurrence.

“From a legal aspect, the thing I’ve liked about the job is there’s always something new and different,” he said.

For example, Boeckmann was city attorney in Columbia during the time when the American with Disabilities Act mandates had to be implemented.

In the early 1980s, the city's boundaries were still included in the city's charter. That meant that voters had to approve every annexation as a charter amendment. A case in St. Charles ruled that charter cities had to follow the state statute on annexation, so Boeckmann proposed amending the city charter to omit the boundary descriptions and instead put them in the city code.

"And we wouldn't be able to do all the annexations that we do if we had to hold elections all the time," Boeckmann said.

Boeckmann also recalled dealing with a controversy in the late 1980s over an impact fee that developers were required to pay the city to compensate for the burden that a new subdivision might put on arterial or collector streets. Boeckmann said he came up with the idea of changing the fee that had angered developers to a tax that all developers — not just those building in new subdivisions — had to pay based on the square footage of their new construction.

This past year, one of the more controversial issues Boeckmann wrestled with was the city's effort to establish enhanced enterprise zones, which make companies eligible for state and local tax breaks. The EEZ program, however, requires a declaration that areas within the zones are blighted, a provision that stirred tremendous opposition in the city.

Early in the EEZ process, the council passed a resolution creating an EEZ advisory board. Residents protested, saying that because the resolution required only one reading, they had too little opportunity for input. Boeckmann eventually advised the council to repeal the resolution and establish a new board through an ordinance, which requires three readings before it's approved.

Boeckmann apologized at a May council meeting for failing to advise the council against the original resolution.

"The point is that the blight decree and advisory board should have been established by ordinance," Boeckmann said at the time.

The prolonged and heated debate over EEZs illustrates one characteristic of Columbia that Boeckmann appreciates.

“Columbia is an interesting community because you have the strong university influence obviously and which tends to be more liberal or progressive,” Boeckmann said. “But you’re also in the middle of Missouri rural area, and there’s a strong conservative element also, so you know, just about anything you do is going to provoke some controversy.”

Supervising editor is Scott Swafford.

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