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.

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