Four of the six candidates for seats on the Columbia City Council fielded questions on climate and energy issues during a virtual forum Thursday night .
The forum was co-sponsored by Citizens’ Climate Lobby of Columbia, Climate Leaders at Mizzou, CoMo Transit Justice, Mid-Missouri Peaceworks, Osage Group Sierra Club, Renew Missouri and Sunrise Movement Columbia. A recorded video is available on the Sierra Club’s Facebook page.
Second Ward candidates Bill Weitkemper and Andrea Waner attended along with Sixth Ward incumbent Betsy Peters, who is seeking her third term, and her challenger Philip Merriman. Second Ward candidate Jim Meyer and Sixth Ward candidate Randy Minchew did not attend.
One question at the forum focused on the work of the Integrated Electric Resource and Master Plan Task Force, which has asked a city consultant to explore the feasibility of the city having a 100% clean, renewable energy portfolio by 2030, 2040 and 2050. The candidates were asked what information they need and what criteria they would use to decide which scenario Columbia should adopt.
Weitkemper said 100% clean, renewable energy by 2030 or 2040 is unachievable but might be possible by 2050. “The impact on humans will be catastrophic if we don’t,” he said.
Waner said she would want to ensure that any such plan be equitable and just.
“Does it commit to achieving equity, affordability and access for all members of the community?” Waner asked. “Does a plan towards clean renewable energy create local jobs, jobs that are quality family supporting and unionized jobs?”
Merriman was blunt in saying that 100% clean, renewable energy will never happen and that plans that call for it are often filled with empty buzzwords. The activism that pushes for 100% renewable energy is powered by pseudo-science, he said, cautioning that public officials lose the trust of their constituents when they pursue promises they can’t keep.
Peters said 100% percent clean, renewable energy is a goal worth striving for even if the city discovers it can’t reach it. “At least be aiming for the stars even if we don’t quite get there.”
The candidates also fielded questions about whether they would support continuing free public transit after the coronavirus pandemic has passed and what their long-term vision for the bus system is.
Weitkemper supports free bus service beyond the pandemic and switching to all electric buses. He proposed a system with two main hubs, one at the Wabash Station for people going to and from work and another for those traveling to and from the MU campus.
Peters said bus fares should return in the next fiscal year because they pay for 15% of the cost of public transit. The service should remain free, she said, until the pandemic has run its course.
“I think, in this COVID world where it disproportionately affects our lower-income citizens, that we should go ahead and continue this free public transit,” Peters said.
Peters said that if the city wants to build a robust public transit system it will have to find new ways to fund it.
Merriman wants to scrap public transit altogether. He listed a number of cities around the country — Broken Arrow, Oklahoma, Arlington, Texas, and Olathe, Kansas, among them — that are comparable to Columbia but have no public transit at all. They rely instead on different forms of ride sharing.
Merriman said that Columbia could adopt such a model and that doing so would reduce greenhouse gas emissions and make transportation more efficient by providing services to people when and where they need it rather than driving buses all over town and hoping someone hops on them.
“There’s an enormous benefit to this instead of having buses, whether electric or not, patrolling the streets,” Merriman said.
Waner said public transportation is a basic need and a public good. “The challenge of breaking the cycle of poverty begins with reliable transportation,” she said.
Without adequate, reliable and accessible public transit, people are forced to accept lower-paying jobs that are within walking or biking distance, and they lack access to basic resources, Waner said.
“We have to work harder to expand public transit for communities that rely on it, to meet their transportation needs,” Waner said.
The candidates differed in their responses to questions about the city’s new pay-as-you-throw trash collection program and their long-term goals for solid waste. Waner, Weitkemper and Peters agreed that while there are issues with the new program, which was fully implemented Feb. 1, the city needs to see how well its working and to work out any bugs.
Weitkemper, however, believes the city should put roll carts back on the ballot. Waner and Peters said they are open to converting to a different system if residents support it, but they opposed putting roll carts on the ballot unless an ongoing citizens’ initiative petition to do that succeeds.
Merriman wants to end the pay-as-you-throw system as soon as possible and explore contracting with private businesses for trash and recycling collection, as many cities have done.