Written by Mike Martin
Unprecedented involvement seems designed to undermine a candidate unpopular with city administrators
COLUMBIA, 1/15/13 (Op Ed) -- Political pundits say that if a candidate can co-opt -- steal -- an opponent's issues and make them his or her own, they can win the election. Bill Clinton was supposedly famous for this tactic -- he stole welfare reform, pundits say, right out from beneath Republicans.
In Columbia, Missouri, candidates for the 4th Ward Columbia City Council seat don't need the savvy of a William Jefferson Clinton. Not when they've got city clerk Sheela Amin.
Like a rogue political operative, the normally low-profile Amin has been swiping City Council candidate Bill Weitkemper's issues and feeding them to his two opponents, incumbent Daryl Dudley and fellow challenger Ian Thomas.
"Force feeding" is more like it. Neither Dudley nor Thomas requested the obscure information Amin has been providing, all from Weitkemper's legwork, patience, and time. And lips are sealed about who, if anyone, ordered the skullduggery.
Hoping to develop some important but little-known issues for his campaign, Weitkemper has requested city staff training budgets; sewer and basement backup statistics; storm-water complaints; and safety equipment purchases for fire, police, public works, water and electric utility personnel.
He thinks recent cuts to the fire department's training budget, for instance, are unwarranted and counterproductive. In 2009, fire department personnel received $383 per employee for training. By 2013, that figure is almost two thirds less: $143.
"All training budgets, especially the Fire Department's, should be increased," Weitkemper explained. "Employee training is not an area that should ever be cut."
The information requests are part of Weitkemper's campaign strategy, research he alone is doing based on knowledge he picked up as a city employee for more than three decades. That's one reason he was shocked when Amin began feeding his research to his opponents -- and only his opponents, not candidates in the other three City Council races (Mayor, Third Ward, Fifth Ward).
"Hi all. Below is information one of you has requested," she emailed the three candidates. "For efficiency purposes, we thought it would be best to provide to all of you."
"I do not share your concern of being 'efficient' as justification for providing the information I requested to Ian and Daryl," Weitkemper wrote back.
"Attached is a spreadsheet with information regarding uniform and training budgets," Amin continued. "Below is contact information for employee groups."
Certainly, the information is public. But only one of the three candidates took the time, effort, and multiple requests to retrieve it. A candidate who started his campaign explaining that he had bucked his superiors on behalf of the people of Columbia.
Rightly or wrongly, Amin's actions -- unsolicited by the other candidates and likely unprecedented for that reason -- could create a perception that city administrators are trying to thwart part or all of Weitkemper's campaign.
Who is the 'we' Amin refers to who made the decision to involve Weitkemper's opponents in his information requests? the Heart Beat asked Amin, Weitkemper, and city manager Mike Matthes. Did Mr. Matthes give his permission? Did he actually get involved in this, and if so, why?
Will the information about training budgets and sewer backups be provided to candidates in the other races? What is the "efficiency argument," given the other two 4th Ward candidates never requested the information?
Only Weitkemper answered, forwarding copies of seven emails he'd sent to various city administrators requesting the training budgets and basement backup stats.
Meanwhile, how does he feel about having his campaign undermined by a former colleague? "I don't want to complain," Weitkemper told the Heart Beat.