In a fifth-floor office that overlooks West Broadway, Ray Beck unwraps another piece of Dubble-Bubble gum, denying the urge to take his pipe from his pocket, all the while recounting the events that shaped Columbia’s growth and development during his tenure.
Thursday morning, Beck announced his plans to retire at the end of this year, leaving behind a 45-year legacy of bringing up-to-date services and amenities to Columbia.
“As I think back on my many years of service,” he said, “I am reminded that our city has changed in many ways.”
From implementing refuse collection to coordinating annexations that doubled the size of Columbia, Beck’s service has been unwavering. Such a commitment to what was his life’s work will continue, he said, even if it’s not in an official capacity.
“I’ll be around if the city calls upon me,” he said. “But I won’t have any say in who they hire or the process.”
His willingness to assist the city anyway he could, and for such a prolonged period of time, drew the praise of Columbia Mayor Darwin Hindman.
“He’s an organized thinker, and he is able to come up with good, practical ideas,” Hindman said. “I hate to see him go.”
Beck’s retirement will add to a string of departures from the top level of city government. In the past two years alone, Water and Light Director Dick Malon, Planning Director Roy Dudark and Public Works Director Lowell Patterson have retired or moved on. With Beck’s departure, the city will have lost a combined 93 years of institutional knowledge.
The person selected to become the new city manager will oversee 1,168 city employees, hire Patterson’s replacement, plan the city’s budget and implement policy decisions as directed by the Columbia City Council.
“We have a responsibility to go out and find our city manager, and the charter is clear that is the responsibility of the city council,” Hindman said.
Fourth Ward Councilman Jim Loveless said Beck’s retirement did not come as a shock.
“I think all of us on the council have been aware that Mr. Beck’s tenure would come to an end,” Loveless said.
While the City Council will ultimately make the decision, the background, outlook and training of any candidate will be of great interest to many people. Questions abound. Should Beck’s successor specialize in public works? Should the city look in-house? Should the council seek someone with experience in a similar city?
“The council will make a concerted effort to finda city manager who fits well with Columbia,” Loveless said. “I would not expect the criteria to be wildly divergent from what we have already.”
Dan Simon, a Columbia attorney who represented Elvin Sapp, developer of the Philips farm, couldn’t agree more. Simon said what makes the positions of city manager and public works director challenging is the vast array of city services they oversee.
“I hope that we’re going to look for someone who is both technically and politically astute,” Simon said. “And by astute I mean they have the ability to get along with what can be a disparate group of people.”
Simon fears that whoever is hired will either be too partisan or will focus on a handful of issues rather than making sure the machinery of good government hums.
“He or she has a definite role of giving competent advice from a managerial and technical perspective,” Simon said. “If they have their own agenda about things, they are upsetting the apple cart.”
The overriding issue for the next city manager will be how Columbia will handle growth that has traditionally hovered at 1 percent to 2 percent a year. Throughout his tenure, Beck has stressed that growth is inevitable and that the issue is that it be handled properly. That means ensuring that utilities, roads and other services are able to meet the needs of both city and county residents, present and future.
“It’s not a competition in my mind between the city and the county,” he said.
Assistant City Manager Bill Watkins thinks Beck’s philosophy is reasonable, but that doesn’t mean council members would not entertain hiring someone with a different approach.
“With new people coming in, they may have a different position and way of doing things,” Watkins said. “But that doesn’t make it a bad thing.”
Loveless believes that whoever fills the job will have to be able to facilitate discussion between city and county officials.
“I personally, and a couple of my colleagues on the council, are of the opinion that we are at a stage in the life of Columbia and Boone County where there needs to be more communication between them,” Loveless said.
From the development perspective, Simon said the city is less in need of a person well-versed in urban planning than of someone who is an expert in the financial and technical aspects of management.
“We don’t need some visionary,” Simon said. “We need a competent person who can handle the needs and aspects of Columbia.”