Rejuvenating Democracy can start in Cities

David Webber, Columbia MISSOURIAN, April 23, 2022

With a new mayor, new voices on the City Council, the recently appointed city manager and the waning of COVID-19, Columbia should embrace the goal of being the exemplar of democratic governance for the state of Missouri and America. For many reasons, democracy is performing poorly around the globe. One reason is that the middle class has prospered and grown and are more concerned about their families and material goods than they are interested in participating in self-governance. Consequently, government looks big and messy so we tend to tune out, so voting has generally declined (but it increased in 2020) as have other types kinds of civic and social involvement as described in Robert Putnam’s “Bowling Alone” that became a popular cliché about 20 years ago.

Not too long ago, citizenship meant voting, paying taxes, doing jury duty, reading the newspaper, keeping up on public affairs and answering the call for military duty, if necessary. Citizenship now means “doing your own thing” (that’s from the 1960s) and paying taxes. Most of us only discuss public affairs with our neighbors when issues like roll carts and mask wearing hit close to home.

We need to change local governance and local political culture to increase effective, informed citizen involvement with the goal of improving government performance.

Here are five ideas.

1. Encourage voting

Voting is good. We need more of it. It engages citizens, educates them, empowers them and generates a sense of community. Voters usually end up being more informed about local affairs. I favor universal voting, just like universal jury duty. Voting requirements are set by state law, but Boone County can encourage voting. For starters, reminders to register should be enclosed with the personal and real property notifications sent out by the County Assessor every late November or early December.

2. Adopt ranked choice voting

We need more candidates. They give voters a choice. We don’t have enough of them. It was good to have four candidates on the ballot for Columbia mayor because they presented different ideas and perspectives, but it was risky because sincere voting might result in a less preferred winner. Ranked choice voting allows voters to express their honest preference without fear of “throwing away their vote” or helping a less preferred candidate win. As a charter city, Columbia can adopt ranked choice voting ourselves, as Article XVI, Section 120 of the charter states.

3. Establish a credible quarterly community survey

Columbia has contracted a high-quality random sample survey about every two years since 2003. That’s great, but it’s a little too much information and too late to affect regular decisions. It’s costly and time consuming. It would be helpful to citizens and elected officials if they had more timely citizen responses and opinions about issues. I wonder if citizens really think that the silver globe at Providence and Broadway is a worthwhile government investment? How do citizens feel about roll carts and solid waste issues? I have my impression of public opinion on these topics but I really don’t know.

Over the past two years, I conducted several informal internet surveys. They were pretty good, but their pitfall is not the wording of questions or analysis but sample selection. I tried hard to widely distribute the survey using social media and email lists— but I am uncertain it was adequately representative of the Columbia community. I believe a quality, quarterly, credible community survey can be conducted at minimal cost if the respondent pool is wide and diverse and the survey is done regularly for comparison purposes. This could be accomplished by a sponsoring organization of about five people providing oversight and input.

4. More clearly and completely present government at work

With the decline of the traditional city hall reporters, citizens need help following local governance. Local government should focus meetings more clearly, present relevant and necessary information clearly and make decision processes and alternatives clear. Yes, city council, I’m thinking about you. Often when I think I know what is going on, I ask myself “what the heck are they doing” and “what are they talking about?” Just providing more information is not good government. While is nice that the city website is full of information, it’s unclear what it all means. Responses on the new BeHeardCoMo website should be reported to the public at least quarterly.

5. Establish a citizen forum or local think tank

Citizens need to create and control this so it focuses on what citizens experience and need. There are dozens of organizations and people in Columbia who know a great deal about a slice or a sliver of our town, but there is no credible group keeping an eye on broad trends and future problems that may confront us. We need a broadly-based community forum to review government, follow up on previous decisions, anticipate future challenges and inform citizens and policy makers with credible information. I suggest that all former candidates for elected offices get involved because they learned a great deal about Columbia by running for office. The citizen forum should digest all the specialized reports other groups prepare for use by citizens, not to push a particular issue.

City leaders should challenge other Missouri cities in a contest to improve the quality and quantity of citizen involvement. That would be a race that could benefit the whole state.

David Webber joined the MU Political Science Department in 1986 and wrote his first column for the Missourian in 1994. He can be reached at Webberd@missouri.edu.

Blunt should show bipartisan support for Supreme Court nominee

David Webber, Columbia MISSOURIAN, April 15, 2022

Sen. Roy Blunt disappointed me last week. I’m sure we have often disagreed on public policy before. He has lots of diverse opinions and interests to represent. I generally give elected officials a wide path if they stay in the middle. I get over policy disagreement the next day; disappointment takes longer.

The cause of my disappointment, however, is really important. Blunt chose to go along with most of his party and allow the most recent Senate confirmation of a Supreme Court justice to continue its bottomless slide into hyper-partisanship. It was a disappointment to see his response about the latest nominee to the Supreme Court, Ketanji Brown Jackson.

Most media and public attention about her nomination was because she is an African American woman, but most observers agree she is well qualified. I doubt that race and gender were the chief considerations of the opposing senators. The same group denied nominee Merrick Garland, a white male, even a vote in 2016. What mattered most to them is that she was nominated by a Democratic president. Blunt joined 46 other Republican senators continuing the circus of partisan rhetoric that dominates the chamber’s proceedings.

For as much as Senate Republicans preach about “strict constructionism” and “originalism” approaches to interpreting the Constitution, few of them have apparently read it earnestly. Article 2, Section 2, provides that the president “shall nominate, and by and with the Advice and Consent of the Senate, shall appoint Ambassadors, other public Ministers and Consuls, Judges of the Supreme Court, and all other Officers of the United States.” While reasonable people may differ on the extent of active involvement implied by “advise and consent,” it’s unlikely that a faithful interpretation would permit blocking a nominee from even getting a Senate vote because it was politically advantageous.

As recently as the 1960s, Senate confirmation of justices was often by a non-conflictual voice vote. The contentious nature of Senate hearings began with several of President Richard Nixon’s nominees’ hearings in the 1970s, but really took off with the Robert Bork hearings in 1987. The Clarence Thomas hearings in 1991 chaired by then-Sen. Joe Biden and involving a sexual harassment allegation by Anita Hill seems to have institutionalized nastiness and rancor.

After nationally televised Senate hearings were re-opened, Thomas was confirmed 52-48. The Senate has seldom gotten back to its traditional role since. Now, both Democrats and Republicans get ready to battle even before a nominee is selected.

Blunt certainly didn’t start this slide, and I don’t believe that he directly contributed to it. But, he could have slowed the erosion. He didn’t.

He took the path of least partisan resistance and voted “No.” In this case, Blunt said Jackson “is certainly qualified” and has a “great personality,” but that he would not be able to support her because he disagrees with her “judicial philosophy.”

That is disappointing because Blunt missed a leadership opportunity to put the brakes on the antics of at least three of his colleagues — Sens. Hawley of our state, Cotton of Arkansas and Cruz of Texas — who kept the Senate confirmation hearings at their low level by reading the nominee children’s books and focusing on a narrow range of her sentencing decisions.

To reach a new bottom, Sens. Lindsey Graham, R-South Carolina, and Rand Paul, R-Kentucky, chose to cast their votes from the Senate cloak room because they were knowingly in violation of the coat-and-tie rule to enter the Senate chamber. Such behavior is viewed as a sign of disrespect. Unless assertively reversed, this decline in Senate norms and performance will continue with no end in sight.

Blunt is very capable of being a compromiser and a mediator. Throughout his long House and Senate service he has held high positions of Republican leadership. He was outstanding as chair of the Joint Committee on the Inauguration for the most recent presidential inauguration, and gave exemplary welcoming remarks.The best of them: “This is not a moment of division, it is a moment of unification.”

Let’s imagine that Blunt continued to pursue a “moment of unification” as it pertains to judicial appointments. He could have sat down with a couple of his veteran colleagues, several of whom worked with Biden when he was in the Senate, and agreed to “a smooth nomination and confirmation.”

Blunt could have said “Look, we know that you Democrats have the votes on this one, just as we will have the votes someday in the future, but we need to stop this nonsense.”

Either of the two ranking members of the Senate Judiciary Committee, Dick Durbin, D-Illinois, or Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, could have chimed in and said, “The two of us will be talking with our friend, the president, this afternoon and we will tell him: “Send up a name we can support, and all will be dignified.”

The other would say, “We will even go further, tell us in advance who you will nominate, and we will make sure it is not another circus.”

Durbin, a Democrat, might say: “We know what Joe said in the campaign. He will nominate a qualified African American woman.”

In my imaginary world, Blunt would speak up and say, “That’s fine. It might be a tough vote for her because of my Missouri folks back home, but I want to be sure the hearings are as dignified as the inauguration was.”

An old-timer, perhaps Feinstein, D-California, or Grassley, might have seconded Blunt’s suggestion with, “Yes, that’s what we need. A dignified Senate confirmation process that restores the trust and confidence of the American people in the Senate and in the Supreme Court. Let’s just do it.”

If Blunt would have acted to encourage a new Senate tradition for the next generation, he would have earned his name on a new building or bridge.

Afterthoughts by the numbers at Columbia’s recent election

David Webber, Columbia MISSOURIAN, April 9, 2022

We often remember names from campaigns, but numbers are important in seeing and remembering the big picture of a particular election. Here are nine important numbers from Tuesday’s election in Columbia.

1. Third Ward tie

Few active citizens will forget the 1102 to 1102 vote tie in the Third Ward between Roy Lovelady and Karl Skala. I’m sure there are Third Ward residents who planned to vote but forgot it was Election Day. That will teach us that, every now and then, your vote might determine the outcome. The tie will likely be broken when military and provisional ballots are counted within a week, so no coin-flip or runoff election will be necessary.

2. Mayoral results

Barbara Buffaloe was elected mayor with 8,538, or about 43%, of the 19,857 who voted. There were four moderate, articulate, informed candidates for mayor on election day. None were extremist or flame throwers. Randy Minchew was somehow tagged as the conservative candidate and received 39% of the vote. The other three were moderates and split 61% of the vote. Without a credible voter survey, we will never know for sure, but several David Seamon and Tanya Heath supporters told me they would vote for Buffaloe so they would not be spoilers. A change to rank choice voting would better reflect true citizen preference by reducing the need to vote for a candidate other than your favorite.

3. Voter Turnout

As an election junkie, the single most surprising number is the increased voter turnout of 7,715 voters, or 35%, compared with the Boone County election in 2019. Population growth was about 3%, so other influences were at work. My first thought is the increase is partly due to the competitive Third Ward where, in 2019, Skala ran unopposed and received 1,394 votes, where the total Third Ward votes increased by 873 or 62%.

Only 19,857 of Columbia’s 100,000 citizens over 18 years old voted for mayor. That’s only about 20% of adults voting for mayor. Buffaloe, the winning candidate, received 43% of the votes— but that’s actually 8.5% of the total adult population. That’s not the candidates’ fault, but it’s embarrassing for advocates for democracy. We need more voters.

4. Campaign Spending

Based on a report about campaign contributions occurring eight days before the election required by the Missouri Ethics Commission, the leading candidates generated about the same amount of contributions. Buffaloe reported $64,746 plus a late contribution of $15,772 while Minchew reported $84,802. I expect both of these numbers to increase in the required final report due 30 days after the election. This approximately $85,000 for Buffaloe and Minchew is less than the $129,873 received by Mayor Brian Treece in 2019 but more than his opponent Chris Kelly’s $57,461.

In the Third Ward tie, spending does not appear to be a critical factor. Skala received $8,043 and Lovelady $7,230 as of eight days before the election. If there is a runoff in this tied election, watch out! Spending will take off.

5. Two Use Tax Issues and a School Bond Passed

Proposition 1, a sales tax on internet sales, passed in Columbia with 58% approving and in Boone County with 54%. The result is to level the playing field for brick-and-mortar merchants competing with out-of-state merchants by collecting a 2% tax on remote sales in Columbia and a 1.75% tax on remote sales for Boone County. Ashland voters defeated their use tax proposal. The Columbia Public Schools Bond issue passed with 76%.

6. Columbia School Board election

This election seemed surprisingly without conflict given the past two years of often rancorous debates about COVID masks and school closings. The only incumbent seeking re-election, Blake Willoughby, won with 27% of votes and a newcomer, Suzette Waters, did a bit better with 30%. Interestingly, Willoughby and Waters, who reported campaign receipts of $3,425 and $8,565 respectively, were outspent by the two losing candidates Andrea Lisenby’s $12,180 and Adam Burke’s $13,430.

7. Withdrawal of Maria Oropallo

The single most important person, other than the candidates, was Maria Oropallo a fifth mayoral candidate, who withdrew March 12 when she accepted that she made a late start and would most likely not be successful. Her withdraw drew attention to the problem of having multiple candidates in a single vote election. She is also recognized for focusing on bus transportation as economic development issue, like the airport, and not as a public works concern, like street maintenance.

8. Number of polling places and poll workers

According to Boone County Clerk Brianna Lennon, there were 42 polling places across the county requiring 200 election judges. An election costs about $225,000 to administer. Lennon said that one of the most difficult tasks is recruiting election judges because both Democrat and Republican judges are required at every polling place.

9. Number of candidates

This election saw five candidates for mayor, two for the Third Ward, two for the Fourth Ward, and four for Columbia School Board. That’s 13 citizens who sought elected office, along with which comes remarkably long meetings, upset citizens, media commentary and potential electoral defeat. We should give them our thanks, attention, respect and scrutiny.

David Webber joined the MU Political Science Department in 1986 and wrote his first column for the Missourian in 1994. He can be reached at Webberd@missouri.edu.


Winners in Tuesday’s election will have work to do

David Webber, Columbia MISSOURIAN, April 2, 2022

Hank Waters I am not, so don’t look for any candidate endorsements here. The late Waters was the long-time publisher of the competing local paper who interviewed each local candidate and often endorsed those he found qualified.

Instead I will propose a “to-do list” for whomever is elected mayor, to the City Council and to the Board of Education on Tuesday. Turnout is likely to be in the 18% to 20% range. Be sure to vote.

I paid moderate attention to this spring’s campaign, but probably not as much as I have in previous years. My hunch is that I am not alone. While there were many candidate forums, most of us seem to still be in COVID-mode, lying low and staying away from public events. Overall, I think the candidates compare well with previous years. Together the mayoral candidates identify an accurate array of issues facing Columbia, but I can’t identify any central campaign themes in either the city or school board campaigns that will focus this coming year’s policy calendar.

Campaigns in a democracy are more than just a horse race; they are an opportunity for citizens and candidates to hear ideas and to educate themselves with the goal of bringing about good public decisions. Unfortunately, paid candidate advertising via multiple mail brochures, social media and radio spots play an oversized role in candidate name recognition. The Missourian devoted enough space to candidate profiles and questionnaire responses to satisfy most interested citizens’ information needs.

For the past few months, candidates understandably focused on getting elected, so they said nice, noncontroversial things and project pleasant personalities. What voters really need to know are (1) how well will the elected candidate, a.k.a. officeholder, interact with his or her new colleagues and (2) will they be speaking up at the critical moment and make a difference? Both of these traits are hard to detect ahead of time. We know from sports scouting and reporting that some excellent players just don’t seem to be near the ball when the game is on the line. People are hard to predict in that way.

A high priority for both the City Council and the School Board is to reflect on the level of trust in local officials. Quite frankly, in the past couple years, even before the pandemic commenced in 2020, my impression is that both elected bodies spend too much time on public posturing and going through the motions of hearing public opinion for the sake of hearing public opinion. Governance is decision-making, not decision-watching.

The Board of Education misspends a great deal of meeting time recognizing great achievements of CPS students, staff and faculty. Better to have board members visit some of the struggling schools and report back to their colleagues what they have found for themselves rather than all recognizing a few of our all-stars during official meeting time.

For the new mayor and the newly formulated City Council, I wish that they will accept the responsibility of active, assertive leadership and propose to the city manager and to Columbia where they want to go.

Hearing long lines of similar five-minute speeches about how to spend the $25 million American Rescue Plan Act money has quickly diminishing returns. Similarly, the council needs to achieve a common understanding of its rules and procedures and adopt the goal of making decisions in a timely fashion.

A key takeaway of the mayoral campaign is the importance and significance of viewing bus transportation as an instrument of economic development, like the airport, rather than a public works project like filling potholes. Columbia has been struggling with operating an efficient and effective transit system for years. The routes don’t go where potential riders want to go; the service shuts down too early in the evening to be useful transportation for those going downtown or to campus for evening entertainment; and some areas — the Highlands neighborhood, for example — get no transit service at all.

It’s been hard to hire and retain drivers, and purchasing buses is not easy due to environmental goals and federal subsidies. Many college towns have an integrated campus-city system that seems to be reliable and profitable. Why can’t CoMo?

Hopefully, roll carts for trash service will be decided by the existing council on Monday. Moving that issue off the council’s agenda will be a gift to the next council members. Like affordable housing and homeless issues, roll carts have taken up too much oxygen over the past five years. My preferred solution — privatization, allowing residents to contract out for either cart pick-up or bag-pickup — sits on an academic bookshelf.

The long-term financial soundness of the city and local economy deserves more candidate attention. Yes, both the county and city Proposition 1 adopting the use tax should be passed, but utility, infrastructure and renewable energy compliance will almost certainly be more costly in the near future.

School Board candidates and administrators talk gently and politely about equity in schools. While the pandemic reduced equity in study performance, CPS, and most school districts, have only moved the chairs on the deck of the Titanic. Someday, maybe candidates will yell and stomp their feet calling for adopting policies that address the consequences of underlying, persistent societal inequities.

Finally, elected official should take a new look at ranked-choice voting. It would increase the number of candidates, reduce “strategic voting” and allow candidates to be more courageous and broaden their appeal to voters.

All city and School Board candidates expressed their love for Columbia. Most citizens feel that way, too. The best way to show that love is to vow to pay more attention to local government and to vote on April 5.

David Webber joined the MU Political Science Department in 1986 and wrote his first column for the Missourian in 1994. He can be reached at Webberd@missouri.edu.