by J Scott Christianson, Columbia Daily Tribune Columnist
Darwin Hindman has launched his fifth campaign for mayor by proposing two important changes to the Columbia City Council: expanding the number of representatives on the council and providing compensation for council members. Both issues are controversial, but if anyone can persuade voters to consider and approve these ideas, Hindman can.
Compensating council members is probably the more contentious of the two issues. Many folks I know will complain about how they are treated at their jobs but expect that someone who is elected should serve tirelessly with little or no compensation for their hard work. If we are the bosses of our elected officials – and I think we are – then some of us make pretty crappy bosses.
On the issue of compensation, outgoing Councilman Jim Loveless remarked, “We have managed to get fine people on the council without paying them.”
Look, even if we begin providing a small stipend to council members, no one is going to run for city council for the money. If you need a job, there are a lot of easier and better paying jobs to be had – jobs where you don’t have to raise $20,000 in campaign funds just to get the job and where you aren’t constantly in the eye of reporters and the public.
Providing compensation is important because it can open up the possibility of serving on the council to a wider group of people. I have talked with several folks who have considered running for the city council but decided they simply could not afford to pay for child care while they attended council meetings. For business owners, a stipend could help offset the loss to their business when they don’t get to work until noon on Tuesday because the Monday night council meeting lasted until 3 a.m.
Considering the amount of time that council members put in, a small stipend seems in order. And make no mistake giving city council members a stipend will still make them volunteers.
The number of city council members was set in 1946, when the population of Columbia was about 25,000 people. Today, Columbia’s population is estimated to be about 93,000 in the city proper, and it grows annually by 1,300 to 1,500 people. Every year, council members have more people to represent and serve. Constituent relations – listening to and trying to solve the problems of Columbia’s citizenry – become a larger burden for this group of volunteers as the population in each of Columbia’s six wards expands.
Columbia’s wards have also gotten a lot larger in size and more diverse in the past years. Expanding the number of wards would hopefully allow for more diversity on the council and better representation for everyone in the city. In a city of Columbia’s size, expanding the council by four or six more members makes good sense.
Just two blocks away from the city council chambers is another governmental body that desperately needs expansion: the Boone County Commission. With just three commission members, a majority can be had with only two votes.
Considering the millions of tax dollars that the commission controls and the weight of the matters that come before it, a three-person county commission is an anachronism that we need to abandon. Current and past commissioners have served with distinction, so there is little public outcry for adding more commissioners. However, if you need any evidence of how quickly a three-member board can descend into chaos, just read through the recent history of the Boone County Fire Protection District. That board is in the process of expanding but only after much turmoil and public outcry. Now is the time to expand the county commission – before any such crisis occurs.
With nearly 30 boards and commissions under their watch, the current commissioners are busy with meetings almost nonstop. Having two or four more commissioners to deal with the day-to-day workload of the commission would make each of them more effective and responsive. More commissioners would also mean that the commission would include more diverse viewpoints and opinions – a strength for any organization.
The Columbia City Council and Boone County Commission both serve large and growing populations. Now is the time to upgrade both of these governmental bodies so that they will continue to serve us well in the future.