COLUMBIA, 9/27/11  (Feature) -- "Public opinion is public opinion," Ward Reapportionment Committee chairman Bob Pugh told the Columbia City Council last week, in a speech that emphasized the public's vocal role in redrawing city Ward boundaries. 
From police review to downtown garages, in fact, public opinion in Columbia hasn't been this loud in years -- or had as many people trying to sway it this way or that. 

To identify Columbia's top public opinion leaders, the Columbia Heart Beat looked at personalities in media (radio, television, newspaper, Internet, magazines); advocacy; and action.  We considered punditry -- from opinion columns to talk radio; testimony, at public hearings or in media interviews; and boots-on-the ground activities with persuasive visions in mind.   We wanted to see a clear imprint left on the public discourse, from the decision that went a certain way after an opinion leader spoke up, to the water cooler and online conversations that follow their words or deeds. 
Advocacy -- trying to sway the public toward this or that position, no matter what the cause, was a chief criteria.  Though Columbia has plenty of specialized reviewers and critics (mostly in sports and the arts) who can sway public opinion, they tend to "recommend" rather than advocate, and so aren't part of this list.   Devotion to local issues was also key.   We have several good opinion columnists who do not devote much time to local issues, and so aren't included in this list. 
Finally, we didn't consider strictly "behind the scenes" players.   Our public opinion leaders must have a public presence, and operate in public view, at least most of the time.   This group is also too diverse to rank, often addressing widely different issues, and so we present them here next to a letter rather than a number, in no particular order.  From the informal surveys whence these names emerged, we also offer pros and cons of their respective styles. 
COLUMBIA'S TOP TEN:  Most influential public opinion leaders
a)  George Kennedy, columnist, the Columbia Missourian  Arguably Columbia's most well-regarded pundit, Kennedy weighs in more frequently on local issues than just about any other commentator, most times with an admirable way of soaring above the fray.       
Pros:  Before he opines, Mr. Kennedy goes to the meetings, debates, and hearings that will impact his words.  And unlike most pundits, Kennedy also interviews many of the subjects he discusses in his columns.  
Cons:  Pejorative asides that can detract from his message. 
b)  Steve Calloway, president, Minority Men's Network.   Couple Calloway's recent appearances on behalf of Ward reapportionment and police review with his long-time school achievement advocacy, and it's not hard to see why this former Columbia School Board vice president has quickly become a top local opinion leader on a broad array of community issues.  
Pros:  With a guiding mantra toward public officials he has called "critical friendship," Calloway criticizes quietly and praises loudly, a "walk softly and carry a big carrot-and-stick" approach that has proven powerful in a variety of public venues. 
Cons:  Can't think of any.
c)  Bob McDavid, M.D., Mayor, City of Columbia.  When this writer saw city manager Mike Matthes seated to the side of Columbia City Council members, I knew a seismic shift was underway at City Hall.  Shaking the Earth under all that brick and mortar:  Mayor Bob McDavid, a retired obstetrician/gynecologist who brought a no-nonsense style to Council affairs that has translated into a long-overdue power shift, from the office of the unelected city manager to the offices of our elected representatives. 
Pros:  McDavid is not afraid to speak his mind, sometimes going against the establishment brand, lending his bully-pulpit credibility to dissenting opinion.   
Cons:  Not following through with his contrarian stance, so the bully pulpit is too quickly withdrawn. 
d)  Patricia Fowler, president, North Central Columbia Neighborhood Association.  From Boston-educated lawyer to Columbia social justice advocate, Pat Fowler is establishing herself as the doyenne of discourse in Columbia. 
Pros:  Her eloquent public testimony on issues as diverse as the bicycle trail through Audubon sanctuary controversy; Ward reapportionment; school district priorities; and failing First Ward storm drains has sparked admiration from all sides.  
Cons:  Can't think of any.
e)  Mark Flakne, president, Keep Columbia Free.   Ripping the hide off a hidebound establishment, civil liberty advocacy Keep Columbia Free (KCF) and its president, Mr. Flakne, have already mounted a credible City Council campaign with Mitch Richards; challenged downtown surveillance and red light cameras; and become the top watchdog of all things Columbia Police.  
Pros:  A regular and vocal presence at public hearings, Flakne and company have ramped up public discourse in short order, putting public officials on notice that civil liberties are off limits.  They also make liberal use of online tools -- from blogs to Facebook -- to keep the group's message alive.  
Cons:  Danger of single issue advocacy lurks.
f)  Henry J. "Hank" Waters, publisher, Columbia Daily Tribune.   "The Tribune's View" for as long as most people hereabouts can remember, Mr. Waters can be maddening -- or moving -- depending on which side of his hard-to-define political philosophy readers find themselves.   Just when you think he's conservative or libertarian, Waters is suggesting taxpayers fund trailer parks to avoid the horrendous conditions that have befallen privately-owned Regency Mobile Home Park. 
But in the same breath, he's defending Regency's corporate owners against liberal advocates, so he can't be liberal -- right?  
Pros:  Waters can be a truth-telling advocate in the best sense of the term, as in this recent Humane Society editorial:  "The Humane Society will need more public funding to augment private donations...both [city and county] governments have reason to sustain a good animal shelter operation and should consider helping more."  Truer words were never opined. 
Cons:  A frequent behind-the-scenes player with conflicts of interest that can impact his powerful pulpit. 
g)  Bob Roper, columnist, Columbia Daily Tribune.    Tribune columnist, KFRU Sunday Morning Roundtable regular, and retired banker Bob Roper is Columbia punditry's resident Republican.  But he's also an establishment insider, which can put his conservative fiscal philosophies at odds with the community's vast and powerful public sector.  
In the August column linked here about City Hall's growing financial imbalances, for instance, Roper isn't afraid to line item a growing money mess, from underfunded pension liabilities to giant garages losing tens of thousands per month. 
But his solution strays from what most conservatives would advocate.   "Raise taxes," Roper suggests.   Then he hedges.   "Are Columbians collectively reaching our limit as to what we want in municipal services and what we will pay for?"  He doesn't answer.  
Pros:  On economic and financial issues, most knowledgeable editorialist in Columbia.   
Cons:  Doesn't buck the establishment hard enough when it's going against his fiscal principles.    
h)  Ken Midkiff, columnist, Columbia Daily Tribune.   Our third entry from the Trib, long-time columnist Ken Midkiff focuses mostly on local environmental issues, occasionally veering toward national and state politics (as in "Obama deserves pinch-nosed vote").  Of all Columbia's commentators, Mr. Midkiff pulls the fewest punches, and probably draws the most consistent fire.  
About Columbia's land-hungry developers, "where the ground is not flat enough for a house or a big-box store, well -- bulldozers, backhoes and frontloaders can fix that."  About the current housing crisis:  "Foreclosures have led banks to come up with innovative ways to make a buck on somebody else’s misery." 
Pros:   Midkiff is a persistent advocate, often targeting insider deals at City Hall that have left soiled footprints on Columbia's natural wonders. 
Cons:  Too single-issue for some readers.   
i)  Mary Hussman, spokesperson, Grass Roots Organizing (GRO).   Columbia's social conscience on issues important to low-income persons, Mary Hussman savored a momentary victory last week, when the city's Planning and Zoning Commission denied a rezoning request from the Regency Mobile Home Park. 
It was a welcome if temporary moral statement about a devastated south-town 278-lot trailer park that virtually every part of society has failed, from its private sector owner, George Gradow, to City Hall, which has issued -- but never enforced -- hundreds of health and safety violations against Gradow over the years.  Without Hussman and GRO, a powerful tag team unafraid to tackle social justice priorities, it's hard to imagine this outcome. 
Pros:  From public agencies misusing taxpayer resources to private businesses manhandling low-income clients, Hussman challenges power at every turn, sometimes victorious, but often not.   Her persistence is as much of a statement as her advocacy.
Cons:  Old school is good, but GRO could take a few lessons in tech-savvy advocacy from Keep Columbia Free.   
John and Vicki Ott, CBT photo
j)  John and Vicki Ott, historic preservationists, Columbia.   Though he's neither public advocate nor published pundit, John Ott and wife Vicki have done more to reshape Columbia in the past decade than nearly any other people in the community.   Though he may be the only local developer who actually testifies at City Hall on his own behalf (rather than through an attorney), Ott has mostly led by example, restoring and renovating block after block of Columbia's "District," lovely old buildings that for decades sat unused and depressed. 
Yes, our city is more than just its downtown.  But with the District's close proximity to our three major colleges, the Ott's handiwork has helped restore its rightful position as the community's heart.  
Pros:  John and Vicki Ott have stood on a vision of sustainability, preservation, and history.  In so doing, they may be the only public opinion leaders with whom virtually no one disagrees.   
Cons:  Critics say Ott can be heavy-handed when dealing with the downtown merchant community.
Which group(s) didn't make the list -- and why.    Though some in radio would have dominated a list like this a few years ago, broadcast personalities are notably absent.  No Fergusons, Nolans, or Bradleys.  No Simon Rose -- or Renee Hulshof.   As a means of swaying public opinion, radio and television have increasingly taken a back seat to online and print in Columbia.
We don't have a McLauglin Group-style roundtable of journalists like KETC-St. Louis' Donnybrook that hashes out the local issues of the day.   Much of the serious on-air policy debating involves national issues, and our radio/television hosts rarely advocate positions on local issues.  The Sunday Roundtable and KBIA's Intersection with Reuben Stern come closest. 

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