GEORGE KENNEDY: Confusion, concern in the wake of the city's mess

Thursday, May 1, 2014 | 4:02 p.m. CDT

First comes the parade, with the circus passing through town, clowns and all. Then comes the clean-up crew, scooping away the mess the elephants left behind.

If you’ve been paying attention to the latest brouhaha over downtown development, you may have detected a few circus-like performances. At the risk of straining the metaphor, I’ll describe Brent Gardner, Pat Fowler and Nick Peckham as the shovel carriers.

This clean-up crew met Wednesday evening to discuss their next move. Carrie Gartner and Skip Walther were there, representing downtown businesses. Along with a couple of other journalists and an interested citizen, I was there to eavesdrop.

In keeping with the way this whole issue has unfolded so far, the dominant theme of Wednesday’s conversation was, as far as I could tell, confusion.

Skip, whose shock of prematurely white hair makes him the most distinguished looking lawyer in town, repeatedly insisted that what’s needed is data, and that the city staff should be able to produce it. Just what is the state of downtown sewers and electric power? What are the funding options?

His questions, central though they are, seemed to me to ignore the reality that the staff has presented data and proposed options. Back in January, City Manager Mike Matthes told the City Council that any further development downtown would require $20 million in expanded sewer and electricity capacity. He proposed paying for that, and a whole lot more, with a Tax Increment Financing district.

Public Works Director John Glascock and Water and Light Director Tad Johnsen provided details to the clean-up crew, more formally known as a subcommittee of the Downtown Leadership Council. We must expand the main sewer line and feeder lines by 50 percent, and double the power supply, they said. (That was reported April 3 in the Columbia Daily Tribune.)

The only trouble was that hardly anybody — including an eventual majority of the council and 3,600 angry citizens — seemed to believe them. The credibility of the staff, who had Mayor Bob McDavid’s vociferous support, was eroded further when it turned out that some development just might be possible after all, and for a lot less money.

To me, at least, the core problem faced by the clean-up crew isn’t so much a lack of data as a lack of trust.

It looked that way to Pat Fowler, too. She said to Skip and her colleagues, “There’s been a serious breach of trust with the citizens.”

Having made the mess, the City Council has asked the leadership council to repair the breach and also come up with some less toxic funding options. Fulfilling the first part of that mission won’t be easy. For example, the deal brokered with the Opus development group by rookie First Ward Council representative Ginny Chadwick is already being questioned by a leader of the citizen petition drive.

So what to do?

Why, hold a public forum, of course. The first of two will be next Wednesday at 7 p.m. in the council chamber. There’ll be a follow-up next Saturday.

If it were up to me, I’d want the city manager, his key lieutenants and council members present to explain how they see the needs and the costs. I’d want a strong moderator, to prevent personal attacks and make sure the basic issues are addressed. Otherwise, in the absence of information — even disputed information — I’d expect to see confused and angry citizens sharing their ignorance and growing more confused and angry.

When they went their separate ways Wednesday, the members of the clean-up crew hadn’t settled on a format. That will be an important decision. There’s always the risk of taking a bad situation and making it worse.

Pat and I walked out of City Hall together. I suggested that she’d be the perfect moderator for the forum. She demurred. I couldn’t blame her.

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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Michael Williams May 1, 2014 | 9:56 p.m.

I do not understand how 250-1000 additional beds can all of a sudden overwhelm our sewers and power needs downtown.

You mean to tell me the sewers and power supply were at 95+ percent capacity....and no one said anything until someone wanted to build something else????????

Who was asleep at the switch? If the President of a company told the Board of Directors he could not comply with a growth directive because...surprise!!!...the plant was at 95% capacity, why...he/she would be out on their ass in a heartbeat!

To me, the two directors should be defending their performances.......something is definitely NOT right here.

(Report Comment)
Bill Weitkemper May 1, 2014 | 10:37 p.m.

I was recently asked about the “problem” with the downtown sewer system.

In Columbia there is seldom a problem with any sewer until it starts raining and the sewer stops working. When a sewer stops working two things can happen. Neither is good. Manholes overflow and sewage backs up into basements.

In the previous ten years neither of these two things has happened in downtown Columbia.

However, in the previous ten years:
• 129 manhole overflows have occurred at the “bottleneck” where the Flat Branch sewer system connects to the Hinkson Creek outfall sewer,
• 106 manhole overflows have occurred within sight of the Columbia Regional Wastewater Treatment Plant,
• 27 manhole overflows have occurred in Ridgefield Park,
• 14 manhole overflows have occurred on Chapel Hill Road,
• 13 manhole overflows have occurred in Parkade Subdivision,
• 10 manhole overflows have occurred on Cowan Drive,
• 130 manhole overflows have occurred at various other locations, except for downtown Columbia,
• 18 basement backups have occurred on Aldeah Avenue,
• 6 basement backups have occurred on Sexton Road,
• 6 basement backups have occurred on West Parkway Avenue,
• 5 basement backups have occurred on Springvalley Road,
• 4 basement backups have occurred on St. James Street,
• 62 basement backups have occurred at various other locations, except for downtown Columbia.

The “problem” with the downtown sewer system has been greatly exaggerated.

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