GEORGE KENNEDY: Civic leaders play catch-up in wake of downtown infrastructure muddle

Thursday, April 10, 2014 | 5:40 p.m. CDT; updated 6:56 a.m. CDT, Wednesday, April 23, 2014

So far, the furor we’ll no doubt remember as the Great TIF Debacle of 2014 has left our City Council divided, has called into question the competence and credibility of the city staff and has failed to solve either the problem of overloaded sewers or the question of what we really want for downtown’s future.

It has, however, produced an unusual and significant confluence of interests that has aligned outsiders and insiders. The activists of Grass Roots Organizing, the dreamers behind People’s Visioning, the residents of North Central and the business leaders of the Downtown Leadership Council are at least temporarily united in opposition to the TIF and in concern for the future of the central city.

That is certainly an unintended consequence of the Debacle. It might turn out to be the most positive result.

Since Jan. 21, when City Manager Mike Matthes told his bosses on the council that downtown infrastructure – sewer and water lines and electric power – was overloaded and in urgent need of upgrades to accommodate the next wave of student apartments, we’ve witnessed a confusing and unproductive scramble of attempted explanations, unwelcome proposals and a 180-degree turnaround by a council majority, who liked the idea of a TIF before they hated it.

Regular readers know that I try always to remain optimistic, sometimes in the face of considerable evidence, so I will say only tentatively that I think I saw a couple of glimmers of hope in this week’s developments.

The first came from the outsiders. Jeremy Root, who ran afoul of Mayor Bob McDavid the last time he addressed the council, delivered at Monday’s council meeting a stern lecture that summarized hasty missteps and concluded with an admonition to “take your time” and follow due process in re-addressing the unresolved issues.

The next day, his allies in GRO and the neighborhood association handed in petitions bearing more than 3,600 signatures of citizens demanding the reversal of one of those apartment approvals made in haste.

Then Wednesday night a subcommittee of the Downtown Leadership Council began getting itself organized “to lead the way on gathering public input to help inform the Columbia City Council and city administrators on what funding sources they should seek to pay for central-city infrastructure improvements.”

I’m quoting from the letter DLC chair Brent Gardner sent the council in which he accepted the mayor’s invitation to jump in.

The letter goes on to say that the subcommittee intends to gather the relevant data, hold public hearings, confer with city staff, seek independent analysis of the problems, identify revenue sources and coordinate infrastructure planning with projections of future development.

Now you might think all that is what the city staff and our elected leaders should have done before springing on an unsuspecting community the announcement of impending crisis and the urgent call for tax-shifting action.

You might also think that, if they had, there’d be no need for another of the chores the DLC is taking on: “Make recommendations designed to restore public confidence in planning process.”

I asked Mr. Gardner whether he agreed that his group is being called on to play catch-up. He did. I observed that the city is paying consultants $150,000 to do a two-year analysis of a narrower topic, downtown zoning.

With no budget and a four-month schedule, how realistic is this undertaking, I wondered. He and his subcommittee colleagues seemed undeterred.

Their search for data will have to begin, of course, with the city staff. There’s the first problem. Bill Weitkemper, retired sewer superintendent, continued Wednesday his campaign to demonstrate that the information provided so far by the Public Works staff is at best inaccurate or maybe even deliberately misleading.

He makes a strong case, which the staff hasn’t yet rebutted convincingly. Who are we to believe?

A couple of years ago, after public opposition thwarted another plan, Mayor McDavid drew a conclusion that again seems appropriate. He said, “You never want to get in the way of an engaged citizenry.”

The citizenry is again engaged. The question we’ll see answered over the next few weeks is whether our local government this time will be in the way or in the lead.

George Kennedy is a former managing editor at the Missourian and professor emeritus at the Missouri School of Journalism. He writes a weekly column for the Missourian.

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John Clark April 11, 2014 | 7:57 a.m.

Bravo, George. Welcome back from your all too brief vacation.

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