Hard questions at crowded forum bring soft answers
from wobbly Mayor; Sullivan looks more Mayoral
COLUMBIA, 2/7/13 (Op Ed) -- To a standing-room-only audience seeking hard answers to tough questions at this afternoon's Muleskinners forum, Columbia Mayoral candidate Sid Sullivan came looking very Mayoral.

Clearly more sure of himself on his second try for the city's top job, Sullivan matched opponent Bob McDavid's charming but vague answers with pointed criticisms and thoughtful solutions that brought approving "uh huhs," muted applause, and knowing laughter from around the room.

The two candidates addressed commercial (C-2) zoning that has flooded downtown with student apartments; disability access at the Columbia Dinner Train; business tax incentives; shrinking middle class wealth; Council policy making; gun control; citizen-driven planning; and the Columbia Regional Airport.
Where incumbent Mayor McDavid seemed adrift, covering contradictory and uncertain answers with his trademark easy smile, Sullivan was specific, pointed, and decisive.
Where Dr. McDavid characterized city government as "complex and complicated," Sullivan insisted that "data-driven planning" done with transparency, honesty, and for the entire community -- not just a chosen few -- would clear away a lot of clouds.

Where the Mayor -- a years-long educated physician -- said manufacturing jobs were key to the American Dream, Sullivan said that in his experience, education and training made better sense.  The Mayor's manufacturing jobs argument failed during the EEZ debate, so his use of it here seemed oddly unaware. 

When will City Hall start taking accessibility seriously? audience member Kathleen Weinschenk asked, citing the still inaccessible Columbia Star Dinner Train, which received a controversial $45,000 city subsidy and use of the city's COLT railroad line.  

The train's inaccessibility came up again at Monday's City Council meeting, when 4th Ward Councilman Daryl Dudley implored public works director John Glascock for help with a disability ramp at the boarding station. 

Referencing opening remarks during which he laid out his vision of a city that serves all people, including those with disabilities, Sullivan likened the dinner train subsidy to the Enhanced Enterprise Zone (EEZ) and TIF programs. 

It was another in a growing list of taxpayer giveaways that don't benefit all taxpayers, Sullivan explained.  "We can't keep handing out incentives that only help a select few," he explained.  "That's one reason EEZ was defeated. The public would have to pay for it without receiving much in return."

Contradicting his own record, Mayor McDavid stated his "full support for accessibility."   But he voted to approve the dinner train subsidy in 2010 and has supported the train's owners through three years of controversy about disability access. 
Why does City Hall continually engage high-priced consultants and volunteer citizens to make community plans, then let the plans gather dust? Khesha Duncan asked.   "To have all that volunteer work ignored is an insult to the time, talents, and commitments of Visioning, Comprehensive Planning, and Charrette participants," she said.  Duncan asked what the candidates would do to change this dysfunctional planning process.

Sullivan chastised a city government too much influenced by shadowy players who manipulate policy on the sidelines, encouraging Mayor and Council to do "ad hoc" planning and ignore citizen- and consultant-driven plans. 

"We have plenty of planning expertise in Columbia and we have to start using it, not just paying it lip service," Sullivan said.  "The Council has to start using all this expertise to make policy with hard data."

Tapping his coat pocket and smiling, Dr. McDavid said he "carries around the 13 Visioning statements" at all times, using them as a "guide to what the citizens of Columbia want."  He quoted the H2 Charrette report more than once.
But the Mayor's 3-year record shows so little support for planning -- citizen driven or otherwise -- that his closest ally on the Council, Third Ward Councilman Gary Kespohl last month condemned city government for ignoring plans like Visioning and the Charrette.
Dr. McDavid cited his work on city pensions as a major achievement and a "Federal Reserve metric" that predicts how the community may benefit from IBM tax incentives he supported.  
But he also impugned his record, telling the audience that under his watch, crime has continued rising, police budgets have continued falling, fewer police officers are on the job, and the rental market is starting to weaken.
With all the student apartments his administration has approved, softening rents "are a constant concern of mine. I think about it all the time," McDavid said.  "No one knows how many students will keep coming to MU." 
Sullivan ended his remarks where they began, with plans for a city government that supports the people who pay the bills: John and Jane Q. Taxpayer.   The Mayor's smooth delivery sounded good, Sullivan acknowledged. 
But actions speak louder than words, and easy charm can't cover what Sullivan characterized as McDavid's "wobbly" record.  
-- Mike Martin for the Columbia Heart Beat