Mayoral candidate Chris Kelly and Fourth Ward Councilman Ian Thomas answered questions related to community policing, the next police chief and affordable housing in a public forum hosted by Race Matters, Friends on Wednesday.
The forum was intended for mayoral candidates, but Mayor Brian Treece didn’t attend. Councilman Thomas, who is running for his seat unopposed, asked to join the forum last week, Race Matters, Friends Treasurer Lynn Maloney said.
Each candidate was asked the same set of questions, focused on policing and social equity. President Traci Wilson-Kleekamp didn’t attend because she was sick, members said.
Kelly, who described the policing problem as the “biggest issue right now,” said one of the factors that will inform his opinion of city manager candidates will be how they plan to choose a police chief.
He said he would look for a city manager who would hire a police chief dedicated to reforming the Columbia Police Department to act in a way that was no longer “specifically inappropriate with regard to race.”
In response to the same question on community policing, Thomas said it was time for a new city manager after a report compiled by Police Sgt. Robert Fox and former City Manager Mike Matthes at the council’s request was released in August, which Thomas felt pushed back against the city of Columbia’s goals to expand community policing.
Now, he wants to see a new police chief enter the department who has experience in community policing, understands the philosophy and knows how to translate it into practices within the department.
Thomas said he initially thought it would require an outsider to create a new culture within the department, but he said he "is being proven wrong" by Interim Police Chief Geoff Jones, who was appointed to the position in January.
Kelly said he wants quality candidates with experience and proven track records related to community policing from outside the department to be evaluated. If Jones were simply anointed, he said, it would "look like an inside job."
Thomas and Kelly also agreed on a need for more affordable housing. Thomas mentioned the possibility of passing legislation to implement an inclusionary zoning policy to effectively create affordable housing, something he pushed for in his platform.
Thomas also noted his main priority in the next year was to increase the public transportation budget, noting there is a "sense" in town that the system has “fundamental problems.”
“At the moment, the community and the City Council does not value public transportation adequately to invest in it,” Thomas said.
Kelly said the Columbia Community Land Trust is a good model for promoting affordable housing, though not a solution. He said improving infrastructure in the central part of the city would be economically beneficial, as would renovating run-down houses so people could move in.
The only topic the candidates disagreed on was the proposed Henderson Branch sewer extension to the Midway area.
An audience member pointed out that Thomas has voted against it and would again, though Kelly supports it.
Thomas said the sewer extension would lead to the annexation of hundreds of acres on the west side of the Perche Creek for homes that would be subsidized by city taxpayers. He said he will generally avoid annexation until “adequate, fair and logical” development impact fees are in place so growth “is really paying for itself.”
Kelly disagreed, saying not doing the extension will produce an “environmental nightmare”: two new sewage lagoons that could overflow into Perche Creek.
The Henderson Branch Watershed sewer expansion has been a contentious issue since voters approved a $32 million bond to fund sewer projects in 2013, according to previous Missourian reporting.
Twenty-two people attended, including Columbia School Board candidate Della Streaty-Wilhoit.
Race Matters, Friends will hold a forum for school board candidates March 27.