by J Scott Christianson, Columbia Daily Tribune Columnist

Columbia’s visioning process seems to be off to a great start. The BIG – Big Idea Gathering – meetings were well attended and generated lots of good ideas and insights. The next step is the topic groups where Columbians will be able to dig deep into the subjects of most concern and generate a plan for turning vision into reality.

The visioning process will generate a number of great ideas, new insights and several realistic plans for action, but we all know that who the members of the Columbia City Council are and how they vote will ultimately determine the future of our fair city.

In four short months, the Third and Fourth wards will have new representation on the council. We will also elect a mayor in April. Darwin Hindman is considered a shoo-in if he chooses to run again, but he has not revealed that decision. If he decides to add another three-year term to his 12-year tenure, he will be far and away the longest-serving mayor in the past 100 years. Runners up are Mary Anne McCollum, who served as mayor for six years in the 1980s, and Rex Barrett, who served for five years in the 1940s.

Also afoot are rumors of a move to recall a council member whose term does not expire this year. It is too early to tell whether a recall will actually be on the ballot or whether such a recall would succeed, but it does raise the possibility that a fourth city council seat might change hands. If a recall is successful, the remaining council members would be responsible for appointing a new member to finish the term.

It doesn’t take a math whiz to realize that with a possibility of four out of seven seats in play, a majority might be up for grabs.

In Columbia today, city politics centers on the issue of growth and development. People on both sides of the growth issue are already beating the bushes for candidates. Everyone from radio personalities to restaurant owners are being evaluated and wooed.

But unless the pro-growth crowd gets serious in understanding the economic arguments of the smart growth folks, this spring’s election returns might be a repeat of spring 2006.

In last year’s Sixth Ward election, developers spent almost $20,000 in a campaign to get their candidate elected, only to be severely rebuffed at the polls. Afterward, Don Stamper and the Central Missouri Development Council didn’t want people to think the outcome of the Sixth Ward race was a referendum on development and growth. “There are a lot more questions than answers from Tuesday’s election,” Stamper said.

Well, the critical question for voters is not whether development should occur or whether people have a right to develop their own land. Rather, people are questioning why city funds are being used to pay for infrastructure to accommodate new developments. The development argument is that this is fair because the city will benefit in the long term from growth through increased tax revenues, etc. But that is a long-term payoff. If you live on an existing Columbia street that is full of potholes and your sidewalk is crumbling, it is hard to understand why your money is funding a new street for someone else or a new bridge so that a developer can build another strip mall. It goes against people’s sense of fairness.

While the city manager is correct when he says Columbia’s growth as a percentage has remained almost constant for the past 30 years, the large number and size of new developments make some residents feel as if Columbia’s growth is out of control.

The issue of growth has turned city politics into a high-stakes game. It has also caused me to have one new vision for Columbia – that the spring election will be one of the most interesting, and probably most expensive, campaign seasons the city has ever seen.