The two candidates hoping to be Columbia’s next Fifth Ward councilperson fielded questions Tuesday night about accountability for police and city staff, and about short-term rentals.
The forum, co-hosted by the Columbia Public Library and the League of Women Voters of Columbia-Boone County, was the fourth held for the candidates ahead of the April 4 election.
Gregg Bush and Don Waterman are vying for the Columbia City Council’s only contested seat after Councilperson Pat Fowler’s decision to end her re-election bid left Nick Knoth as the sole candidate campaigning in the First Ward.
Bush is a registered nurse who works at University Hospital. He emphasized his experience in health care as something that would be useful in city leadership and would help him become a competent and thoughtful councilperson.
Waterman is a demand analyst for the outdoor product firm American Outdoor Brands. He said his focus, if elected, would be on making way for business growth and fully staffing the city’s first responder departments.
Police accountability dominated public comment at Monday’s City Council meeting, when the family of Quillian Jacobs, along with city residents, called for justice in light of reports that Columbia officers violated department camera policy when they shot him to death in 2021.
The effectiveness of the city’s Citizens Police Review Board has also come under fire in the past year, after several resignations and calls for it to take on more power to investigate police.
Bush said that, as a registered nurse, he is accountable to a state board that holds nursing to a high standard, and that board can suspend or revoke his license. To Bush, Columbia is in a different boat.
“If there is a board that is holding law enforcement to account for the sake of making sure that law enforcement has integrity, I haven’t seen evidence of it,” Bush said.
Waterman said he would like to see the investigations into Jacobs’ death completed. He added that his conversations with police officers revealed to him that they don’t have a problem with oversight but rather with an oversight board that doesn’t have limits on its power.
If investigations into Jacobs’ death yield results that the public doesn’t believe, Waterman said, he would like to see “an arbitration as far as to what the appropriate discipline would be in the event of police misconduct.”
Holding city staff accountable as utilities raise concerns
With the revelation that the city failed to test water for lead and copper last year, and as residents face possible utility rates increases, both candidates said they would hold staff accountable through the city manager’s office.
“Let’s get it fixed,” Waterman said. “Let’s get the testing caught up, and then we’ll look and say: ‘OK, where did this process break down?’”
He added that officials need to be held accountable and that when projects do go forward, he will make sure the appropriate city officials are making them advance.
Bush said he would also hold staff accountable through the city attorney’s office, adding that the first step in accountability would be “a real review of the city manager’s office.”
Bush also said that the city needs to work with highly trained professionals to maintain utilities and infrastructure and that it should set “reasonable, measurable goals.”
Dealing with short-term rentals
Waterman said he thinks the Planning and Zoning Commission’s proposal for regulating short-term rentals within the city “goes a little too far.”
He would like to find a middle ground with the property investors who want to make money.
“They own it, they pay property taxes here, so that’s a good thing for us,” Waterman said. “The revenue that is derived from people that come in — similar to people staying in hotels.”
Waterman added that investing in higher-concentration, low-cost housing would work against the potential problem of losing local housing posed by short-term rentals.
Bush said Columbia is going through an artificial housing shortage. He added that the investors can be from anywhere but are extracting the city’s wealth and sending it elsewhere.
“I want to keep our economy local; I want to keep our economy vibrant,” Bush said. “I don’t want to see our town, you know, trashed for profit by people who don’t have any roots here.”