COLUMBIA — Candidates for the City Council debated the 911 tax initiative, policing methods and citizen surveillance Thursday evening at the last public forum before Tuesday's election.
The forum, which was held in the Parkade Plaza public meeting room, was sponsored by the Missouri Civil Liberties Association, Missouri Association of Social Welfare and Keep Columbia Free. Mayor Bob McDavid and challenger Sid Sullivan, Third Ward Councilman Gary Kespohl and challenger Karl Skala and Fourth Ward candidates Ian Thomas and Bill Weitkemper were present.
Fourth Ward candidate and incumbent councilman Daryl Dudley was unable to attend the forum because of a family emergency.
Here are some of the issues the candidates discussed at the forum:
Candidates were asked if they would support Proposition 1, a proposed three-eighths cent sales tax that would be used to fund emergency operations.
Kespohl said he was in favor of the tax but would feel more comfortable with the initiative if it had a sunset date.
Skala shared his rival's concerns about the lack of a sunset date. He said a three-eighths cent sales tax was too large and indicated that the issue had driven a wedge between the city and the county.
McDavid said he would support the tax but thought it was poorly funded. He added that one benefit of the initiative is that it would improve the accountability of the emergency response system, which he described as a "multiparty jurisdictional organization" not accountable to any elected official at the moment.
Sullivan disagreed. Although he acknowledged that emergency response services need improvement, he had too many reservations about the way the upgrades would be funded. The sales tax, he said, has the potential to hurt low-income residents.
Thomas said he was undecided — a switch from his earlier position at the Feb. 15 Muleskinners candidate forum, during which he expressed support for the proposition. He cited the lack of a sunset date and concerns from Fourth Ward residents as reasons for his current uncertainty.
Weitkemper said the proposition was not the answer to improving 911 operations. He referred to the tax as a "taxpayer bailout of government mismanagement" and suggested the city allocate funds from its budget surplus to emergency response services as an alternative.
Satisfaction with the Columbia Police Department
Thomas said the police department is understaffed in comparison to other communities. While he recognized the difficulty of police work, he said, he had heard a lot of dissatisfaction with the force from area residents.
Weitkemper said the department has to be supported by the entire community to "get the job done."
Skala suggested ending a "zero-tolerance" style of policing and said the city needed a more proactive public safety policy. He also indicated that neighborhood watch programs can have the undesirable effect of encouraging reclusive behavior.
Kespohl said City Manager Mike Matthes has been making good progress toward addressing the problems found in last year's departmental review, which determined that the environment in the police department was "approaching toxicity."
McDavid said he had high expectations for police officers and that the city was "within sight" of having a task force in which it could have great confidence.
Sullivan said Police Chief Ken Burton had been hired to bring modern policing techniques to the city. While he, too, had heard considerable dissatisfaction from residents, he said he believed Burton was dedicated to crime prevention.
Skala said he had initially voted against the installation of red-light cameras during his time as a City Council representative. He expressed skepticism toward technology that came into conflict with the Fourth Amendment, later adding that he "absolutely opposed" installing cameras downtown.
In contrast, Kespohl said he supported the cameras, which he described as a "good deterrent" against irresponsible drivers.
McDavid said the cameras were a part of the culture in Columbia and indicated that trying to change the situation would be equivalent to "swimming upstream."
Sullivan said cameras were acceptable in areas such as parking lots, where there was a need for them, but installing them in public areas was a disservice to residents. He described using public money for this purpose as "abusive."
Thomas disagreed with the use of public surveillance unless it had a clearly defined and justifiable purpose. He noted that red-light tickets could be effective at discouraging reckless drivers from breaking the law.
Weitkemper said he did not have an issue with the installation of cameras on public streets to prevent crimes.
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