Karen Miller speaks in her office

Boone County Southern District Commissioner Karen Miller speaks in her office a few weeks before her last term ended. Miller was first elected to the commission in 1992 and she officially ended her duties Dec. 31.

COLUMBIA — Tom Bogard was not impressed. 

It was October 1992. Bogard was 56, and a Republican candidate for the Boone County Commission. His challenger, a businesswoman 16 years his junior, was just too young. Too inexperienced.

That didn't mean he didn't see potential.

"When she gets to be my age, she's going to be very formidable," Bogard told the Columbia Daily Tribune. "When she gets some years on her, she's going to be dangerous."

Bogard did not win that election. Nor did anyone else running for the commission's Southern District seat over the next two decades — unless the name was Karen Miller.

Last year, Miller announced that she would not run for re-election after seven terms and almost a quarter-century on the Boone County Commission.

In an interview during one of her last weeks in office, Miller said she doesn't think she's become "dangerous." But she did open up about her biggest regret, her toughest vote and the advice she'd give Fred Parry, who will be sworn in today to take her place.

The following interview has been edited and condensed. Hit the "play" buttons throughout to hear audio clips of Miller going into more detail.

BLAKE NELSON: It's the early 1990's. You've got a successful career running (the restaurant) The Establishment, and then one day you were talking out loud that you didn't like anyone running, and someone with you had the paperwork just on them?

KAREN MILLER: We were working on a fundraiser for Linda Vogt. Donnie Stamper was there, he was the presiding commissioner, and (activist) Bruce Wilson, and several other people.

I asked them: "Who's running?" And they named off like six different people. I said, "I can't support any of 'em. I can do a better job than they can." And Bruce Wilson said: "Well, I just happen to have the paperwork out in the car. I'll go get it."

I talked to Roger Wilson, Bob Bailey and Joe Moseley. I said: "What's the worst thing the press is gonna say about me?" Because my grandmother lived with me. And I wanted to make sure there was not going to be anything that would really upset her.

What was the worst thing the press ended up saying about you?

What Roger told me was that, "I ran a bar."

I said: "No, I run a restaurant, and lounge." Because I said I was restaurateur of the year last year.

And so then he said: "Well, they're going to say that you live with somebody." And I said: "You know, we're monogamous. That's more than I can say about a lot of people that are married." It was those kinds of things.

What are you most proud of, looking back?

I ran on passing a half-cent sales tax for our road system, and by June we had passed that. And we have renewed it twice since then, and it's up for renewal next year. It has made a huge impact to our county.

What are the things that you look back on and just think, "I wish we could have gotten that while I was here?"

The fairgrounds comes up.

I don't regret my vote to preserve that land. At all. It's surrounded by the city. It, at some point in time, is going to be close to the center of the city.

The only thing I regret is that we didn't treat it the same way we'd treat our departments.

What advice would you give (Northern District Commissioner) Janet Thompson, (Presiding Commissioner) Dan Atwill and (Southern District Commissioner-elect) Fred Parry in taking over this thing starting in January?

It takes a public/private partnership. It's going to take a small tax ballot initiative to pass, to make it sustainable.

When we put the EPIC tax on the ballot, we were really under the gun, and we didn't use our process.

I read a really interesting article from 2008 where you and your father discussed the differences between his work as commissioner in Scotland County and your work here. What is the hardest thing about trying to lead a county that's growing as fast as Boone?

I think it's harder in those rural counties.

We're blessed. We have a tax base. When we have an issue, and we can prove to the public that it's a need, they support us. The rural counties don't have a tax base. I mean, they're just losing the population.

In Scotland County, their real problem is the Mennonite community has bought up all the land, and they don't pay taxes. 'Cause their people don't go to schools. I mean, I think they probably pay land tax, but as far as for schools and things.

So that really hurts that community. And they really don't have anywhere else to go.

What's your biggest regret?

I regret we didn't get the use tax passed.

We've been working toward that for, oh gosh, several years, and I've collected so much data on the use tax and how other communities passed it, and what the questions were that the citizens had.

And then the 911 center came in. It was going on the ballot the same year as 911 — but that was more important.

Karen Miller's desk is unusually cluttered

Karen Miller says the process of moving out of her office in the Roger B. Wilson Boone County Government Center left her desk unusually cluttered. She has been in office for 24 years.

What advice would you give to Fred (Parry)?

Count to two. If you can't count to two, you can't get anything done.

And understand your authority. I've seen commissioners come in who thought they were going to fire somebody in the clerk's office. Or fire somebody in the collector's — you can't do that. That's not your job.

And if you think they're wasting time, you can talk to the elected official. And they can tell you to go fly a kite. It's their office. They'll run it the way they want to.

County Commission has its share of detractors, critics, people like Mike Martin and Columbia Heart Beat.

Oh god.

Was there ever a moment when someone wrote something, some piece of criticism about you, and internally you thought: "Ah dang, they're right."

I've had things they wrote that were true, and it was embarrassing.

But, not so much. I always want to respond, and you can't get in a tit-for-tat.

I never read the comments in the paper, online. Never. I just don't believe in that. I believe if you don't have the guts to say your name and who you are, your opinion doesn't matter to me that much.

If it's a big enough problem, it'll come out in a meeting.

What's an example of some criticism that you always wanted to respond to and couldn't? Now is your opportunity.

Mike Martin is the most frustrating man I've ever met in my life. I even used an f-bomb on him once, and he wrote about it in the paper. That's an embarrassment.

His big thing is that, he hates the Board of Equalization and the assessment process. It's state law! Change the law if you don't like it, but don't beat up your local people who are doing their job.

So much of the national election that just happened seemed to center around people who didn't feel like they had access to their government. What advice would you give to the average citizen — what is the best way to make your voice heard to someone like you?

They shouldn't be afraid to approach their county official, or their city councilperson. Especially a county commissioner, 'cause we're full-time.

Our office is open. We are very accessible. People just don't think that, I don't think. And so that's why I think it's so important to go to the chicken dinners and the community meetings. So people can talk to you where they are.

And when you get to the point where you don't want to go to those meetings on a regular basis anymore, it's time to get out. That's where I'm at.

What do we, as reporters, most often mischaracterize about your work?

If you don't come to the work sessions, and we make a decision in commission, you don't know the background, you don't understand the issue. Most reporters do not get the back story.

And I understand. Part of it is, there's not as many reporters as there used to be. The paper can't afford to have dedicated reporters.

When I started, we always had the Missourian, we always had the Tribune at every one of our meetings. We had KFRU at our meetings. We'd have a TV station in the meetings.

Now, there's days we have nobody at the meetings. And that's unfair to the citizens.

What do you think the average citizen doesn't understand about your day-to-day work?

They don't understand we run a multi-million dollar organization. We have, like, 10 departments that are under us.

What would you say was the biggest fight between the three commissioners?

Early on, (Presiding Commissioner) Donnie (Stamper) and I got into it on spending money to purchase the MKT link. I didn't see the value of that.

He was right. I was wrong.

It was from that first campaign that you said: "A commissioner should be able to read people and be a good salesman."

I still agree with that.

We had the home rule (proposition), the first one that was on the ballot. There was a letter to the editor that they should force me to resign 'cause I was supporting home rule. Well I wasn't!

But this guy (who wrote the letter, Bob Green), I knew he was at the Perche Creek Yacht Club every morning having coffee with this buddies. So I found out what time he came there, and I was there before he got there with all his buddies. And I challenged him on that.

We're seeing that every day of our life now. They just take somebody's word when they read it on the Internet as factual. And that is the scariest thing we've got going on.

But today, Bob and I are good friends.

Karen Miller plans to give this sign away

Karen Miller plans to give this sign, which sat on a bookshelf in her office, to Martha Stevens after Stevens is sworn in to represent the 46th District in the Missouri House of Representatives.

What was the toughest vote you ever took in your life?

It took me years to be able to talk about it without crying.

Out at the airport, Len Levy was wanting to put in this big commercial thing (in 1997), and Ashland just thought it was their savior.

I just in my gut felt like it wasn't the right time, it wasn't the right thing. The infrastructure wasn't there, the interchange wasn't there, there wasn't sewer there, there wasn't good water there. And Mr. Levy didn't want to put the money in to put it there!

Why should all the taxpayers pay for that infrastructure investment for him to get rich?

Did you experience any blowback for your vote on that?

Oh, yeah. It was 2-1. I was the swing vote.

The editor of the paper called me, and she said: "I am writing a scathing editorial about you."

I said: "Well, thanks for letting me know 'cause I am not going to read it."

And I, to this, day, have not read that article.

Is there any part of you that wants to?

No. She was a friend. I did not want to take that moment to ruin our friendship.

And she's a still a friend. We got past it.

Is there something I should be asking you right now?

If I was queen, I would make every student have a civics class every year of their school and learn about the different levels of government.

County government's the most misunderstood government of all the governments, but it's the one that delivers the most services.

It takes care of the jail, it takes care of the courts, it takes care of the assessment process, takes care of tax collection, takes care of elections. But people don't value their county government 'cause they don't think of it in those terms.

Maybe if we had civics again, people would want to run for office.

Supervising editor is Scott Swafford.

  • Blake reported and edited for the Columbia Missourian from 2015 to 2017. Contact him at blake.nelson@mail.missouri.edu / 573-882-5720

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