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Fourth Ward candidate Bill Weitkemper says he would be 'tough but fair' leader

Tuesday, March 26, 2013 | 3:00 p.m. CDT

COLUMBIA — Bill Weitkemper is a man of few words.

He speaks in a slow and measured way, as if determining whether each sentence can be said more efficiently than the last. The style of speech suits him. As a staunch advocate of “spending wisely,” Weitkemper, 64, has made it his personal goal to eliminate waste and excess in every aspect of his life.

His campaign is no exception. He declined to mail campaign literature, viewing their production as an expensive method of reaching potential voters. He balked at ordering flashy, full-size yard signs, opting instead for small black-and-white signs that would save him hundreds of dollars and allow him to stay within his limited campaign budget.

The amount of money candidates regularly spend on City Council elections makes him uncomfortable, he said.

“There should be campaign finance cutoffs,” he suggested. “A $10,000 cutoff for a council seat and a $20,000 cutoff for mayor.”

Weitkemper, the self-described “wild card” of the Fourth Ward race, believes his many years of combined city and business experience make him the ideal candidate for the job — more so than his two competitors, incumbent Fourth Ward Councilman Daryl Dudley and former PedNet Coalition director Ian Thomas.

He points out time and time again that there is a disconcerting lack of experience among city leaders. The average department head, he says, has held his or her current position for an average of 3 1/2 years, leading to reckless spending and decisions that are poorly thought through.

That's something he hopes to change.

• • •

Weitkemper has lived in Missouri his entire life: He was born in Mexico, Mo.,  and raised in Centralia. He moved to Columbia, worked in Kansas City, then returned here, where he has lived since 1972.

He grew up on a farm in Centralia owned by his grandparents and moved to Columbia when he was a junior in high school. To this day, he has fond memories of helping his grandfather, Albert W. Schindler, with the daily duties of the farm: planting crops and feeding the cattle, hogs and sheep.

“My grandfather was a very good person and expected a lot of me,” he said. “I used to tell everyone I was his favorite grandson.”

The son of an MU engineering draftsman and a Daniel Boone Regional Library worker, Weitkemper always has held a special fondness for the city of Columbia. He's seen the city grow and change over the years — and not always in the best way, he said.

"Columbia's a good city to live in," he said. "But lately people have been disappointed in the management of the city."

After graduating from Hickman High School in 1966, he attended Northeast Missouri State Teacher’s College, now Truman State University. He worked at the Panhandle Eastern Pipeline Co. in Kansas City for four years and later became a draftsman for the Columbia-based firm Engineering Surveys and Services.

In June 1975, he accepted a job offer in the city's sewer division and stayed there for 37 years.

He met his wife, Judy, at a country-western bar after a softball game and said it was love at first sight, "more or less." They married in 1982 and have six children — three each from previous marriages — and 14 grandchildren.

At Weitkemper’s Feb. 12 campaign kickoff at Shakespeare’s West, he and Judy Weitkemper handed out business cards, slices of pepperoni pizza and name tags to Fourth Ward residents who had braved the evening chill to meet him at the West Broadway restaurant.

Catherine Parke, an adjunct instructor at Moberly Area Community College, said she was impressed with Weitkemper’s commitment to enhancing government transparency and thinks he is well-qualified to serve on the City Council.

“I’ve heard him speak at council meetings as a private citizen,” she said. “He gives good information.”

Weitkemper says his family always has been the biggest inspiration in his life. He inherited his dedication to community involvement from his father, a former Scoutmaster, Little League coach and PTA president.

He lost his mother last year and has missed her every day.

“When I was little, I’d tell her she didn’t love me just so I could listen to her tell me how much she did,” he said.

• • •

In the basement of the Evangelical Free Church, the uniformed members of Boy Scout Troop 708 were laughing, swapping stories and chasing one another around the room. Six large wooden chuck boxes were scattered across the linoleum floor, full of remnants of the boys’ weekend trip to Hohn Scout Reservation. That Monday night, the Scouts were responsible for cleaning out the boxes’ contents.

Weitkemper, too, was decked out in traditional Scouting regalia. A string weighed down by multicolored beads — blue, black, red, each color corresponding to different kinds of camping conditions — hung from a loop on his belt. His khaki shirt was emblazoned with a dozen different patches, a collection of awards and honors he has earned throughout his 50 years with the organization.

He stood to the side of the room with the other troop leaders, maintaining a watchful but respectfully distant eye on the boys’ progress. His broad smile was at odds with his otherwise stoic composure.

“It’s chaos — but organized chaos,” he said with a laugh.

As the troop’s advancement chair, Weitkemper is responsible for keeping detailed records of each scout’s accomplishments and progress toward the ranks, from Tenderfoot through Eagle Scout. He serves as a liaison between the troop and the Great Rivers Council headquarters.

Every few minutes, a different Scout would approach him shyly with a request for a quick conference or with a question about the requirements for a certain badge or rank. He listened carefully to each child’s concern, placing a friendly, reassuring hand on the boy’s shoulder as he did so.

“It’s nice to be associated with people with a commitment to youth,” he said. “It sets a good example for the youth to follow.”

Inspired by his father, a former Scoutmaster, Weitkemper joined the organization when he was 11 and quickly moved through its ranks, becoming an Eagle Scout in 1963. In 1979, his son Aaron became a third-generation Scout, and today, his grandson Jacob Albin carries on the family legacy.

The 13-year-old shares his grandfather’s pale blue eyes and slender build and is often the object of Weitkemper’s proud gaze.

Assistant Scoutmaster Bryan Garton said Weitkemper is a detail-oriented leader, a quality that makes him perfect for his position within the troop. Garton has been a good friend of Weitkemper’s since the candidate and his grandson joined Troop 708 three years ago.

“He’s one of the most organized advancement chairs we’ve ever had,” Garton said.

Weitkemper said he would have only one regret if he is elected to the City Council: missing out on future Scouting events. The troop meets each Monday at 7 p.m., the same time the City Council holds its biweekly meetings.

“I haven’t been to a camp out since I started my campaign,” Weitkemper said wistfully.

• • •

During candidate forums, Weitkemper usually begins his opening remarks the same way. As his audience waits expectantly, he adjusts his glasses, arranges the text of his prepared statement and speaks carefully into the microphone.

“Sometimes I’ve got a problem with my speech and my coordination,” he says, and then, pausing for a second, adds: “Please don’t think I've been drinking.”

The audience laughs at his jest. He gives them time for his words to sink in before getting to the heart of his message.

“Having Parkinson’s has not affected my ability to serve the community, distinguish right from wrong or have good judgment,” he says.

Living with his condition has been difficult, Weitkemper said, but it isn’t an insurmountable problem. At least, not yet. At the Hy-Vee on West Broadway, he explained why he felt obligated to share this information with voters between sips of coffee.

“I’m not looking for any sympathy,” he said. “But I thought it was something that deserved an explanation.”

Last April, Weitkemper underwent deep brain stimulation therapy, a surgery that left wires "two inches down in (his) brain" and a bright white scar across his chest. The procedure helped in some ways, he said. He stands a little straighter these days and doesn't need to take as much medicine as before. But he says the quality of his speech has only worsened with time.

Weitkemper said he can fulfill the role of a Fourth Ward councilman, but the rigorous nature of campaigning has proved physically challenging. He has friends assisting him with canvassing and has turned to different forms of media to help spread his message.

In addition to maintaining a campaign website, he is airing radio ads on KFRU. He's also made an appearance on a KOMU segment on master water meters.

He has done some door-to-door campaigning, he said, but he finds the task physically demanding and needs time to recover afterward.

"Hopefully people understand that that's something I can't do, not because I don't want to, but because it's difficult," he said.

• • •

Weitkemper has long held a reputation as a whistleblower, unafraid to make tough decisions, though he says he personally doesn't care much for the term.

In March 2011, he spoke up at a City Council meeting to protest what he viewed as the city staff's "manipulation" of the Sewer Task Force. He said the task force had been pressured to take a draft sewer ordinance to the City Council for a vote before former City Manager Bill Watkins could retire.

"None of the task force had seen the ordinance prior to approving it," he said.

In particular, John Glascock, his supervisor and director of the Public Works Department, had been pushing for the vote, he said. Weitkemper said he met with Mayor Bob McDavid, Third Ward Councilman Gary Kespohl and Fourth Ward Councilman Daryl Dudley about the matter after the council adopted the task force recommendation.

It was one of the defining moments in his decision to run for office.

“That was pretty much when I decided I wasn’t going to put up with that,” he said. “If that’s called whistle-blowing, I’m going to blow the whistle.”

Weitkemper said that type of leadership made him an effective superintendent in the sewer division. In 1976, he said, he was in charge of overseeing 221 miles of public sewer lines. Thirty-two years later, that number had increased to 664 miles, but the number of budgeted positions in the department had fallen from 13 to 12. Despite this, he said, the number of basement back-ups and sewer overflows underwent a 95 percent decrease from 152 in 1976 to 7 in 2012 during his time as superintendent.

Glascock never asked him how he managed to do what he did, he said.

He describes himself as a "tough but fair" leader and said his family members, including loved ones who have passed away, have been his guiding force to be an honest decision-maker.

“What motivates me to do right is knowing how disappointed they’d be if I didn’t.”

Supervising editor is Scott Swafford.


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