GEORGE KENNEDY: McDavid and new City Council must be more collaborative

Friday, April 12, 2013 | 6:00 a.m. CDT

There was a nice bit of irony that went largely unremarked at Monday’s changing of the guard on our City Council. Along with the usual plaques and thank you’s for the two defeated incumbents, each of those staunchly pro-development gentlemen was given the promise of a “heritage tree” to be planted in a city park.

Their successors are likely to be more protective of our trees and more skeptical of rampant development. To use the terms I prefer, last week’s election shifted the balance on the council from gray to green.

It also offers an opportunity for re-elected Mayor Bob McDavid to hone his diplomatic skills. When I suggested that to him a couple of days after the election, he just chuckled — diplomatically, I thought.

The need for those skills and their existence were both already in evidence earlier this week. The day after its new members were sworn in, the newly constituted council concluded a work session by deciding to revisit the old council’s inclination to tackle traffic problems on Providence Road by demolishing a half-dozen houses on the border of the Grasslands.

New Fourth Ward Councilman Ian Thomas questioned a staff projection of continued traffic growth and imagined instead more public transit and car-pooling.

In our post-election chat, Mayor McDavid sounded like a leader determined to be a diplomat. He knows and respects both his new colleagues, he said. He especially looks forward to working with Councilman Thomas toward their shared goal of somehow altering Columbia’s entrenched “car culture.”

He emphasized the value of diverse viewpoints, noting that “7-0 votes” aren’t always healthy. “We all need to be challenged,” he said. “I may lose some votes.”

He used the words “paradox” and “complicated” as he discussed the needs to balance property rights with community needs and development with preservation. He reminded me that the C-2 zoning that allowed the eruption of all the new downtown dormitories is currently under review. The desirability of in-fill development and density versus height restrictions and parking requirements? “A dilemma.”

Successful diplomacy, of course, must be reciprocal. I sought the wisdom of experience and called Sixth Ward representative Barbara Hoppe, now the senior council member in length of service and newly re-elected as mayor pro tem.

She’s looking forward to a productive term. As evidence that our elected leaders can disagree without being disagreeable, she cited her work with the mayor on improving the bus system and her collegial if not cozy relationship in a previous term with Laura Nauser, the consistently conservative former Fifth Ward representative who was returned to the council in February’s special election.

Ms. Hoppe offered the safe prediction that we’ll see more emphasis on sustainability and energy conservation, more emphasis on making sure that new development pays for the infrastructure it requires. Those points were at the heart of Karl Skala’s successful campaign to reclaim the Third Ward seat.

This council will be more “neighborhood friendly,” she said.

When I asked how she expects the election to change the dynamics of the council, she replied that she sees the mayor as being “a little more collaborative, hopefully.” She thinks he will work effectively with their new colleagues.

The Missourian quoted Mayor McDavid himself after being sworn in Monday: “We’re gonna listen, we’ll move, we’ll challenge, we’ll disagree, we’ll do our best, we’ll be respectful, we’ll be diligent, and we’ll show dignity at all times….”

That last point may come into question once Councilman Skala breaks out his trademark fishing vest or Councilman Thomas shows up in biking shorts, but I think we can look forward with some confidence to fulfillment of the rest of those predictions.

And we shouldn’t rule out the possibility that the reshaped council will, at least occasionally, live up to Columbia’s new official slogan — “What you unexpect.”

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.

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