Hindman’s challenger gets credit for trying

Sunday, March 18, 2007 | 12:00 a.m. CDT; updated 10:15 p.m. CDT, Sunday, July 20, 2008
Kennedy is a professor emeritus at the MU School of Journalism.

I don’t suppose there’s anybody in Columbia, with the possible exception of the man himself, who thinks John Clark has a prayer of beating Darwin Hindman for mayor. Still, I give him a lot of credit for running.

I also give him credit for trying to stir up a public conversation about the structure and functioning of our city government.

I say he’s trying to stir that conversation, but so far — with only about two weeks left before Election Day – it’s mainly a monologue. I’m not even sure anybody’s listening. That includes the newspapers.

A week ago, John Clark held a “news” conference at a downtown restaurant. I put the word “news” in quotation marks because, as far as I can tell from an electronic search of the files, only paid any attention. That’s too bad, because what he wanted to talk about is important to us all.

In his prepared remarks — and, knowing John Clark, I’m pretty sure he delivered them in full — he said this: “I believe the ‘council’ side of our ‘council-manager form of government’ is broken.”

He went on to say, “The council has abdicated its charter responsibilities to make policy, and by its inaction has asked the city manager both to make the vast bulk of policy … as well as administer the government of the city.”

Isn’t he right about that? What’s the last major policy initiative to emerge from the people’s elected leaders rather than from the manager and his staff? Even the “visioning” process that’s intended to shape the community’s future was advocated by Bill Watkins, who also promises to push vision into reality.

I certainly mean no criticism of Bill Watkins. Nor, I think, did John Clark. Leadership has to come from somewhere.

The issue is whether it should come from the people we elect or their hired hand. The stronger that hand, the more important the issue.

The governmental structure we have is designed to favor the hired hand. Information is power, and the manager has the information. By and large, council

members know about city issues what the manager tells them. The budget is the blueprint for government, and the manager drafts the blueprint.

Mayor Hindman’s rebuttal to the criticism, KOMU reported, was to say that the city has made a lot of progress in his 12 years. If you define progress as growth, he’s right. Of course, if the candidates, both lawyers, were in a courtroom, both would recognize the reply as nonresponsive to the charge.

The solutions John Clark proposes include an enlarged council with working committees, staff support and stipends for council service, all to make possible what seems to be impossible now. That is the making of policy by the City Council.

Win or lose, John Clark has put before us a substantive issue. Candidates, and journalists, owe the public serious discussion. Election Day is April 3.

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