GEORGE KENNEDY: Country respects right to engage in government, or not

Friday, July 5, 2013 | 6:00 a.m. CDT

COLUMBIA — Here in the land of the free, we celebrate Independence Day with fireworks, picnics, baseball and the occasional reflection on just what the Continental Congress bequeathed us 237 years ago.

One of our most cherished rights as citizens, codified a few years after 1776 in the First Amendment to the Constitution, is the freedom to assemble peaceably and petition our rulers for redress of grievances.

Another, not written down anywhere as far as I know, is the right not to participate in the whole governing process.

Both were on display during a pleasant Monday evening down at the Daniel Boone City Building.

I was a few minutes early for the City Council meeting, so I was happily distracted when I encountered a small peaceable assembly in front of the entrance. There were a couple of faces familiar to any regular council observer, but the attention-getter was two people with guitars and a guy squatting behind a bongo drum.

It turned out that these were petitioners whose grievance was the city’s announced plan to buy several vehicles powered by natural gas. The problems for the grievants were that natural gas isn’t a renewable resource and that the process by which much of it is extracted is both energy consuming and methane producing.

For a few minutes, a handful of us were treated to a song, written for the occasion, about the evils of hydraulic fracturing, better known as “fracking.” The writer and soloist told me she’s a lawyer and a Journalism School dropout. To those qualifications, she added a pleasant singing voice.

Later, inside the hall, 10 citizens exercised their right to voice their objections to the city's plan with passion but no guitar accompaniment. They urged consideration of electric vehicles and more emphasis on solar power. They were heard. Sixth Ward representative Barbara Hoppe asked the staff to prepare a response.

Another issue raised the right of nonparticipation. Council members voted to put off until August formal action on the “Columbia Imagined” master plan that has been in the works for more than three years. Between now and then, there’ll be a work session for questions and fine-tuning.

One of the questions will be how to stir up more public involvement. So far, no more than 1 percent of the city’s 110,000-plus residents has attended a session or completed an online questionnaire. (And that count may exaggerate. I suspect I’m not the only good citizen who did both.)

Fifth Ward representative Laura Nauser worried about the number of the uninvolved. Maybe some sort of door-to-door canvass is needed, she suggested. Her colleagues appeared to be equally concerned.

I’m not sure there’s really much to worry about. Even in a community with a citizenry that’s often engaged, most people are too caught up in trying to make a living, raising their kids and coping with the day-to-day challenges of survival to spend much time or energy on something as abstract as a master plan.

Most of us are willing to trust our elected leaders to come up with reasonable guidelines. If they don’t, we reserve the right to remove them.

For every Monta Welch, who organized the anti-fracking protest and heads a low-key “People’s Visioning” program, there are 100 who choose to exercise their right of nonparticipation.

When the council gets around to rewriting the zoning code and otherwise putting the plan’s principles into practice, the activists will be out in force. And most of us will stay home again.

We shouldn’t forget that the “unalienable rights” of which Thomas Jefferson wrote, were – and are – “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”

That pursuit and that liberty take free people in different directions. If most prefer real fireworks to the metaphorical kind, Mr. Jefferson would probably be OK with that.

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

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Tony Black July 5, 2013 | 7:36 a.m.

My guess on the low participation is that the city has these "visioning" projects every few years and then either does absolutely nothing with the information or ignores it completely, as was the case with the ECAP program. Meeting upon meeting let the citizens give input, came up with a major plan and then at first opportunity, did just the opposite of the plan.

(Report Comment)
Jimmy Bearfield July 5, 2013 | 8:36 a.m.

One-third of that 110,000 is MU students, most of whom are focused on their studies and college life rather than the community where that occurs. As for the rest, as Tony notes, the city has a long history of ignoring the results of these plans. I'd go a step further and argue that many long-time residents are further jaded by how the city ignores other types of citizen input, too, until it has no choice, such as the EEZ.

(Report Comment)
Ellis Smith July 5, 2013 | 9:29 a.m.

I agree with both the first two posts (though Tony and I might disagree on other matters).

In a city such as Columbia, Missouri or Iowa City, Iowa or Urbana, Illinois there's always the serious possibility of "the tail wagging the dog," meaning too much consideration given to those who are not REALLY residents (aka college students). Students have the right to participate in public matters, but how many of them will take up permanent residence upon graduation?

I definitely agree with Tony that prior city councils have "poisoned the well" by repeatedly commissioning studies and then ignoring the recommendations of those studies. Now, when the lastest "wowser" is featured in the Missourian and/or Tribune, permanent residents tend to yawn and go about their business.

The "fringe," on the other hand, will ALWAYS demonstrate, as is their right. As for employing electric vehicles, we can presently do cars, but heavy duty trucks aren't quite there yet. :)

(Report Comment)
Ellis Smith July 5, 2013 | 3:25 p.m.

"...but how many of them will take up permanent residence after graduation?"

It strikes me that the answer will vary considerably, according to which UM System campus is discussed.

UMKC and UMSL: These are urban campuses, with a fair number of students from the respective urban area. We might expect more than a few graduates to remain in the metro areas.

UMC (aka MU): A lesser number of graduates would remain after graduation.

MS&T: Both historically and currently, few graduates would remain in Rolla, Phelps County or surrounding counties. Some degree programs would normally require relocation outside of Missouri.

(Report Comment)
Corey Parks July 5, 2013 | 5:30 p.m.

Jimmy is that number correct? I was told one time that the students are not counted in the city population. The person at city hall made it sound like we have 110,000 plus the additional 39k students.

(Report Comment)
Jimmy Bearfield July 5, 2013 | 8:27 p.m.

The person at city hall is wrong. See the Students section at

(Report Comment)
Ellis Smith July 6, 2013 | 6:25 a.m.


Jimmy is correct. I don't like this method (counting college students as permanent population, unless they as individuals have actually met legal requirements to establish residency). IMO they should be counted as being resident at their family home locations, unless they have none.

Would that require more effort in taking the census? Probably, but in this computer (and computing) age it could be done. Remember, aside from the constitutional requirement that there be a census (for purposes of representation in the federal government), census data are used for all sorts of legitimate purpoes, public and private. They should reflect reality.

Of course if the purpose is doling out federal largess*, it could be very useful to have a city's "permanent" population shown as larger than it actually is.

*- Including all those wonderful FREE goodies, the ones nobody has to eventually pay for (oh yeh?).

(Report Comment)

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