Ray Beck treated his final news conference as Columbia’s city manager on Friday with his usual reserved but genial manner. More or less, he’s done this twice a month for the past two decades — sharing with citizens and the news media the agenda for upcoming City Council meetings and explaining them in laymen’s terms.
Aside from a brief statement, Beck, 73, downplayed his upcoming final day, this Friday, on the job. His official retirement on Feb. 1 will end a 46-year career with the city, 20 of which were spent as its top administrative official.
The news conference, held twice a month on the Friday before council meetings, is a community staple of sorts: It is a chance for the press to ask about business coming before the council and for citizens to watch the proceedings on the city’s cable channel to stay informed of government actions.
“I felt it important to communicate information not only to our City Council but to all our residents,” Beck said from a conference room on the fourth floor of the Daniel Boone City Building. Usually, the event was held in the more spacious council chambers. Later, he thanked the press corps for its diligent attendance.
Robert Ross, the city’s communication director, said the regular event did more than announce city goals and plans; it made them comprehensible to a wide audience. Beck called it a “two-way communication” that has allowed the city to gauge public sentiment and collect feedback.
“The council deals with some very complex issues that often affect the lives of all citizens, and the meeting is an important part of an effort to make sure these important issues are laid out in an understandable fashion,” Ross said.
Ross also said the news conference is part of a larger strategy to make sure that information is accessible to citizens. He cited the availability of the council agenda online, the city’s cable channel (which broadcasts council meetings) and now the addition of downloadable videos of public service announcements.
Fourth Ward Councilman Jim Loveless said that although the public does not reference the news conference directly when it addresses the council at meetings, it does use the information.
“They can read about it, and they can make reference to quotes and information gleaned from it when they come before the council on certain matters,” Loveless said.
Bill Watkins, the longtime assistant city manager who has been hired to succeed Beck, will take over the news conferences come Jan. 13. Watkins said the release of the council’s agenda and the explanation of its content is one of the most important functions the city performs.
He said the news conference alerts people to issues such as zoning and land use that directly involve them but appear highly complex.
“If I live in an area that may be up for rezoning, or a new development is going in at the corner up the street, then certainly these issues take on importance,” Watkins said.
Beck said that the task of overseeing a growing city has been both tough and enjoyable but that it was time for him to step away.
“There are always going to be those challenges out there,” Beck said. “I think in fairness to my family and so forth that it’s time for me to retire from this position.”