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Columbia Missourian

GEORGE KENNEDY: Exercises in democracy, some better than others

By George Kennedy
June 6, 2013 | 7:02 p.m. CDT

On successive evenings this week, a fortunate few of us got a glimpse of how governance is supposed to work and a report of just how dysfunctional politics has become. I was left to reflect on a prescient warning by one of the Founding Fathers.

Monday night's City Council meeting showed, I thought, our elected leaders at their best. First, they ignored the carping from some about "wasteful" spending and agreed unanimously to appropriate something over $300,000 to renovate the interior of the J.W. "Blind" Boone Home and transform it from a relic into a cultural centerpiece. Spending isn't wasteful when it's an investment, as this is.

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The bigger and more controversial item on the agenda was the long-simmering issue of what to do with the stretch of Providence Road that fronts the Grasslands Subdivision. In grappling with that issue over the past year, neither the council nor its staff has covered itself in glory.

There has been confusion, misunderstanding and reversal. Monday's discussion and decision, by contrast, struck me as a model of thoughtful argument and a reasonable balancing of interests.

Not everybody would agree, but that's democracy for you.

Money was involved, as always. So was the question of what's most important — pedestrian safety, traffic flow on a major thoroughfare or the convenience of neighborhood residents. The decision ranked the priorities in that order.

Mayor Bob McDavid asserted himself, as he is increasingly wont to do. Laura Nauser responded with a conservative counterpoint.

Karl Skala and Barbara Hoppe, usually allies, argued conflicting positions, with Karl strongly supporting the mayor. Ian Thomas, the rookie, offered a piece of wisdom with broader application:

"We can't build our way out of traffic congestion with more roads."

In the end, the vote was 6-1, with only Fred Schmidt still backing the option preferred by most, but not all, Grasslands residents.

Tuesday night, a different group of citizens packed a conference room in the public library for Chris Kelly's dissection of the recent legislative session. Chris, a Democrat and the senior member of the Boone County delegation, describes himself as an incurable optimist, but even he couldn't find much to praise.

The session was defined by what didn't get accomplished, most notably the expansion of Medicaid under the national Affordable Care Act, aka Obamacare. That ideologically driven refusal is likely to cost the Columbia area at least $45 million a year in lost federal funding and the jobs that won't be created.

A painful irony, Chris said, is that the areas that will suffer most are those whose politics are the deepest red — the rural areas whose hospitals will lose subsidies, whose residents are most likely to be uninsured and where new jobs are most needed.

He also bemoaned the failure to take advantage of historically low interest rates by authorizing a billion-dollar bond issue for capital improvements. He is hopeful but skeptical of its chances in the next session.

Those failures and the passage of the income tax cut (since vetoed by Gov. Jay Nixon) are largely attributable, Chris argued, to the impact of term limits and the rise of partisanship. Party caucuses are more important than they used to be, and they are more interested in electoral triumphs than in crafting sound public policy.

That observation reminded me of James Madison, who famously warned in "Federalist No. 10" against the rise of "factions," narrowly focused interest groups that would undermine democracy.

I suspect Mr. Madison would feel vindicated were he to observe the damage that's being wrought by the faction controlling our legislature. Its two huge failures and its major achievement are a perfect illustration of what he feared.

(Of course, Mr. Madison, once he'd finished drafting and defending the Constitution, plunged into partisan politics himself.)

Ideology isn't absent from the City Council, but it hasn't poisoned the process. Close to home, we're closer to the representative democracy Mr. Madison had in mind.

George Kennedy is a former managing editor at the Missourian and professor emeritus at the Missouri School of Journalism.