Pat Fowler’s friends have been telling her for years she should run for a spot on the Columbia City Council. For the longest time, though, she couldn’t afford to do it.
Fowler said she struggled to find a job that paid well enough to be comfortable for the first 18 years she lived in Columbia.
“When you earn $12 an hour or less in this city without benefits, your life is hard, and I understand because I’ve had that experience,” Fowler said. “I understand the fatigue you feel when you get home at night, and you want to do well by your neighbors, but you’re too tired.”
Having recently secured a new job as business manager for Farm and Home Structures, she feels she’s finally in a position where she can effectively serve on the council. That’s why she’s one of three people competing to replace First Ward Councilman Clyde Ruffin, who is not seeking a third three-year term.
A win in Tuesday’s municipal election, which was originally scheduled for April 7 but delayed because of coronavirus worries, would put Fowler in elected office for the first time. But the issues confronting the council aren’t new to her.
Fowler became active in Columbia affairs in 2003, when the poor condition of a city-maintained parking lot threatened to cause flooding in the North Central Columbia Neighborhood Association where she lives. She addressed the problem at City Council meetings and with city leaders. Although the lot still hasn’t been fixed, Fowler remains involved.
“There’s a joke among my friends,” she said. “I would say to them, ‘Let’s go do this. It’ll be fun.’ And they’ll stop and look at me and go, ‘Oh, we know what Pat-fun means. It means we’re going to a city meeting, aren’t we?’
“My definition of fun is very different from a lot of people.”
Fowler has served for years on Columbia’s Historic Preservation Commission, which she now chairs, and is active in the North Central Columbia Neighborhood Association, for which she has been president.
Robert Hemmelgarn, the association’s vice president, appreciates Fowler’s contributions. While his association post prevents him from formally endorsing a candidate, he said, “there’s no question she cares deeply about her community.”
Fowler has a passion for historic buildings and architecture that has even influenced her campaign signs. Their colors match those of Boston’s Fenway Park: Green Monster green, Boston blue and foul-pole yellow.
Her house, just down the street from Jefferson Middle School, was built in 1910. She can tell you the history of the home and all the families that have lived in it. She’s trying to restore the house to its original condition.
“I want to walk into the house and, with the exception of my TV and computer, feel like it was 1910,” she said.
Although Fowler appreciates Circus Lyon Community Garden, the architecture of Columbia College and the presence of Jefferson Middle School and Hickman High School in her neighborhood, she has had her share of issues.
She has complained about city street crews being rude to residents when they’re working in the neighborhood. She recalled a group of workers arriving early to chip-and-seal her block without giving residents time to move their cars.
She and her neighbors have witnessed drug deals. When one such deal resulted in a murder, she met, as neighborhood association president, with a police officer and the owner of the property where the death happened. She wanted to trigger a city ordinance that would prohibit the owner from leasing the property. The officer, however, said that process would be too difficult. She wants the council to revisit the ordinance.
Third Ward Councilman Karl Skala has known Fowler for years and said her interest in a range of issues makes her a good candidate.
“Some folks tend to have one burning issue, and that’s why they run for office,” he said. “But this is a position that begs for candidates that are curious and have concern in a panoply of issues.”
Healthy neighborhoods are at the core of Fowler’s campaign. She said zoning codes have promoted the development of apartment complexes designed to fit as many tenants as possible in single-family neighborhoods. She has no problem with apartments but said complexes that are out of scale with their surroundings disturb the fabric of the neighborhood.
“That’s the first layer of segregation,” she said.
Fowler said many central-city homeowners hope to pass their houses on to children, not concede to having them torn down in favor of large apartment buildings.
“We have this immediate clash of interests,” she said. “And I think we have to talk about a shift in the way we view the residential zoning categories in Columbia.”
Fowler said building healthy neighborhoods also involves giving residents options to avoid contributing to climate change: more bike lanes, better public transit and enforced home energy standards.
Helping residents reduce their carbon footprints is important to Fowler. Because her employer, Farm and Home Structures, is based in Platte City, Missouri, and serves the Kansas City area, she has to commute several hours to work and back. She acknowledged the effect of that and said she tries hard to find other ways to help the environment.
The City Council recently passed a Climate Action and Adaption Plan that sets a goal of achieving 100% clean, renewable energy in the city by 2035. Fowler said the goal is admirable but noted that the city is in the midst of a contract through the Missouri Joint Municipal Electric Utility Commission to buy coal-fired energy from the Prairie State Energy Campus through 2036. She dislikes the contract but doesn’t think it’s something the city can break.
Fowler is particularly interested in harnessing wind power. “Missouri is really the Saudi Arabia of wind,” she said.
Still, Fowler is hesitant to support E.ON Climate & Renewable’s goal of establishing a wind farm spanning 20,000 acres or more in northwestern Boone County. E.ON has inquired with scores of landowners about erecting wind turbines on their properties. Fowler said complaints from residents concern her.
Fowler also wants to tackle affordable housing. She believes the key is to prevent large redevelopments from displacing existing housing stock and to prioritize smaller homes.
“Size has everything to do with affordability,” she said.
Fowler wants to explore the idea of making public bus service free by adding a $15 fee to residents’ utility bills.
To curb crime, she supports the concepts of Crime Prevention Through Environmental Design, which calls for designing streets, sidewalks, landscaping and lighting in ways that make crime easier to detect and more difficult to commit.
Through these ideas and others, Fowler hopes she can make a difference in the neighborhood she calls home.