Kespohl has sharpest answers, but Skala attacks his record; Thomas thoughtful, Weitkemper practical, Dudley "having fun"

COLUMBIA, 2/15/13 (Beat Byte) -- All five candidates for the Columbia City Council unanimously agreed that after 13 years, it's time for City Hall to stop making excuses and finish renovating the Columbia home of ragtime composer John William "Blind" Boone.
"We need to get the Blind Boone Home finished!" said 3rd Ward incumbent Councilman Gary Kespohl. "We need to complete those renovations."
At this afternoon's crowded Muleskinners forum, the candidates didn't call for private money.  They didn't talk about which private organizations should take charge of the city-owned home.   It was a bold and unequivocal statement that city government needs to step up and get the historic home renovated and open to the public.
In one of several pointed statements that put his debate performance ahead of the other four candidates, Kespohl even suggested a way to pay for it:  use part of the city's $1.8 million surplus.  Combined with 4th Ward candidate Bill Weitkemper's idea -- after spending a ridiculous $400,000 to renovate the exterior, keep interior renovation costs under control -- City Hall could have the building it insisted on buying finally open to the public.
In a city light on historical attractions, "it could be a real revenue generator," said audience member Khesha Duncan.
The Blind Boone discussion capped the hour-long debate, during which Kespohl and Weitkemper gave the simplest and strongest answers to audience questions about everything from planning to public safety.
Third and 4th Ward challengers Karl Skala and Ian Thomas, respectively, were intellectual and thoughtful.  Skala repeatedly questioned Kespohl over "rhetoric vs. reality."   Thomas laid out a big-picture vision of community dialog and city planning that was both positive and forward-thinking.  
At times though, Thomas seemed uninformed -- not a good position in a debate -- repeatedly apologizing for not being up to speed on certain issues or on how city government works. 
Fourth Ward Councilman Daryl Dudley called his experiences on the Council "interesting," but in contrast to his opponents, offered little in the way of forward-thinking plans or solutions.   "It's been fun and interesting," he told the audience in his concluding remarks.  "I've done my best."
With his inside knowledge of arcane city staff workings, Weitkemper repeatedly noted that if Council-approved plans weren't followed at City Hall, Council members needed to enforce their directives.  "Council doesn't issue building permits.  Staff issues building permits," he said to illustrate where and how directives fail. 

He spoke with heart about coping with Parkinson's over the years, making clear that though his speech may be slow and cautious at times, his mind and soul are all about "making city government responsive to the people."

The Skala-Kespohl conflict, now 6 years in the making, prompted the debate's most interesting moments.
Kespohl decried poor planning, reiterating a frustration he articulated at the Jan. 22 Council meeting:  that City Hall never saw a good plan it didn't ignore.  Better sidewalks, more police, and the need to follow plans were among Kespohl's offerings.
But though it sounded good, wasn't it all just talk? his opponent repeatedly asked.  In office for three years, Kespohl had little in his record that matched his rhetoric, Skala explained, citing the 3rd Ward's long-unimproved Ballenger Lane. 

"On the other hand, two large projects, including Mexico Gravel Road, were completed on my watch," Skala said, referring to his three years on the Council before Mr. Kespohl took the seat in 2010.  "Gary is a Johnny-come-lately on sidewalk improvements."
Kespohl sounded as good as he's ever sounded.  Senior staff would never peddle some of the nonsense they've shopped if they had to face that Councilman.  Dubious plans and crazy schemes would never fly with that Councilman.
All of which made this writer wonder where that forceful, authoritative, and practical Councilman has been for much of the past three years.
No doubt, Skala wants voters to ask the same question.