The four Boone County Commission candidates answered questions ranging from coronavirus response to county infrastructure at a League of Women Voters candidate forum Tuesday night.
The Zoom event, cosponsored by the Daniel Boone Regional Library, precedes the Nov. 3 election. It included Northern and Southern District commissioners Janet Thompson and Fred Parry and their challengers, Republican Tristan Asbury and Democrat Justin Aldred, respectively.
Each candidate was given two minutes for opening and closing remarks, and one minute to answer each question. The questions came from the League of Women Voters, as well as attendees via chat.
The forum began with questions from moderator Barbara Hoppe, former Sixth Ward Columbia councilwoman, for the Southern District candidates, Parry and Aldred. Most of the questions centered around the coronavirus pandemic, including mask orders, CARES Act funding and the impact on the local economy.
Parry defended his decision to meet with a group of local business owners in May regarding the city and county’s public health orders. The meeting led to the group contacting an attorney, who later sued Health Department Director Stephanie Browning on behalf of Tiger Tots daycare owner Paul Prevo. Parry said he was not part of any litigation.
“These (business owners) contribute to our community in a major way,” Parry said. “They had a right to have their voices heard, and I’m disappointed that our leaders in Columbia chose not to listen to them, and that’s why I stepped forward to help.”
Aldred condemned how the meeting was conducted and said it could have been brought up to the commission instead of happening privately. He raised the issue in his opening remarks as well.
“We’ve seen a commissioner who cost taxpayer dollars by facilitating the lawsuit against the body he was elected to represent,” he said. “Moreover, we saw a commissioner who undermined the health response of both the city of Columbia and Boone County, accused the Health Department of having political bias and lied to his fellow commissioners when asked about his involvement in the lawsuit.”
Parry sent a list of the business owners’ emails to an attorney, but he was not publicly involved beyond that meeting. He later denied knowledge of a potential lawsuit during a commission meeting.
Both candidates agreed they’d support a statewide mask mandate, although both added that there’s a level of personal responsibility people need to take in wearing masks.
Aldred questioned the slow distribution of the $21.2 million in CARES Act funding the federal government allocated to the county, asking Parry directly why it was taking so long.
It wasn’t that simple, Parry responded. The guidance was tricky, and the pandemic brought unexpected challenges.
“I think that, while it has taken a little longer, I would tell you that our decisions have been wiser, and I think that in the end, when the auditors come to visit Boone County and see how we spent that money, we’re going to have a very clean slate and a good track record, and we will have served the people that truly needed to be served,” he said.
The two disagreed on the economics of the pandemic in general. Parry, who used to own several magazines, was mainly concerned about rebuilding the local economy with a particular focus on helping those in the service sector and the population living in poverty.
“We need to look at the types of jobs we’re creating. We need to look at the diversity and the makeup of our jobs,” Parry said.
Aldred countered by saying that no economic crisis could truly be addressed until the public health needs of the state are met.
He said he wants to see a partnership between the county commission and local hospitals, as well as reliable internet access for all residents.
“Additionally, with that, I’d like to see us strike a balance between controlling the virus and maintaining an economic infrastructure that allows businesses to stay open, workers to stay safe and customers to stay safe.”
Aside from COVID-19, the candidates agreed that the county needs to improve its roads, including paving gravel roads. They also said they would like to see the city and county work together more.
After the candidates' closing statements, the forum turned to the Northern District race between Thompson, the incumbent Democrat, and Asbury.
Asbury, small business owner and director of strategic communications for the Missouri Association of Realtors, said he would push for greater transparency in the commission. He added that he would advocate for the use of some of the city’s practices — making virtual public attendance and recordings of meetings available online.
Thompson responded that the commission was already quite transparent. She added that these were ideas that had been considered, but the commission is on the fence about finding the funding to implement them.
She also said that she didn’t differ much from Asbury on the issues, but her experience elevated her ability to follow through effectively.
Generally, the two candidates agreed when it came to the question of how the county should respond to COVID-19. They both stressed the importance of masks and abiding by health ordinances.
But daylight found its way through the cracks in the candidates' stances on CARES Act funding distribution.
Thompson argued that the criticized delay in the funding’s distribution was a justifiable choice.
“I think that the delay that’s happened has allowed us to be more attuned to the real needs of our community, rather than willy-nilly sending the money out in some pro forma way,” she said.
She went on to say she’d just talked to community members about specific utility needs.
“If we had put that money out earlier, we probably wouldn’t be in a position to be able to do that utility assistance for folks in our community.”
Closing statements focused on the candidates' distinct backgrounds. Asbury outlined the difference.
“We have two different types of experience, mine is public relations and communication transparency … but again Janet has a legal background I don’t have, and that benefits things as well when decisions are made,” he said. “We’ll leave it up to the voters come Nov. 3.”