Private gathering spurs public flap
City leaders deny secret ‘cabal.’
Published Friday, January 30, 2009
An informal discussion of past and present city leaders about whether Columbia City Council members should be paid caused a commotion yesterday after some interpreted the gathering as a conspiracy to oust current "activist" council members.
Former Mayor Bob Pugh said he has for years organized and paid for a lunch for "has-beens" and "old-timers" to give former mayors and city managers a chance to share memories, war stories and reminisce.
This year’s meeting was held last week at the Country Club of Missouri, and several attendees - including Mayor Darwin Hindman, former Mayor Bob Smith, City Manager Bill Watkins and Tribune Publisher Hank Waters - described it as a social gathering.
Pugh said that for the first time this year, an outside speaker, Bob Roper, attended to talk about the issue of salaries for council members. Roper, a Tribune columnist and former president and CEO of Central Trust & Investment Co., has written in support of council pay and said he wanted to get a sense for how past leaders felt about the issue.
"I was talking with Bob" Pugh "one day, asking for his opinion, and he mentioned he gets this group together once a year," Roper said. "They probably have something" to offer "from their collective experience, and I wanted to see if they would approve" of council pay. "If I find out all former mayors are against it, it will be a hard sell."
Pugh said the discussion touched on several issues, including the idea of creating more wards to increase the size of the council and the option of a "strong mayor" form of government, in which mayors have veto power. Many people disliked the idea of paying council members but agreed that they should be compensated for their actual expenses.
The private discussion entered the public arena when former Mayor Clyde Wilson brought up the idea of council pay at this week’s Downtown Leadership Council meeting and referenced the private gathering, which he attended.
After the DLC meeting, local blogger Mike Martin widely circulated by e-mail a blog entry in which he claimed, citing an anonymous source, that the conversation at Pugh’s meeting "quickly became about ways to remove and discourage so-called ‘activist’ council members like Karl Skala, Barb Hoppe, Paul Sturtz and Jerry Wade." He described the meeting’s attendees a an "elite leadership cabal."
Martin wrote that attendees singled out Third Ward Councilman Skala specifically for removal.
Several people who read Martin’s blog entry contacted him with their concerns that the mayor and Watkins were involved in a scheme to remove current council members from office, and Martin complied and distributed their comments by e-mail.
Hindman addressed the issue at a city council work session last night, emphatically saying that the private meeting was not about the removal of any council members.
"From my memory there was nothing like that, and I can guarantee you I had no participation in that," Hindman said. "That’s something I wouldn’t participate in in any way."
Roper said he was not aware of all of the sidebar conversations that went on, but he did not overhear any discussion of removing or discouraging current council members.
"I know that someone mentioned Councilman Karl Skala wanting to be involved in the discussion of the hiring of the police chief, which is inappropriate under the charter," Roper said. "But that’s a stretch from saying we’ve got to rid of people."
City Manager Bill Watkins said did not recall any conversations about removing council members.
"I think it is absolutely inappropriate and unethical for a city manager to be talking about involvement in any way, in terms of mayor or council election or selection," he said this morning. "I do my best to try to stay out of those conversations."
Wilson said he did hear mention of "activist" council members, but he described the accusations in Martin’s e-mail as "Mike’s interpretation."
By paying council members, Wilson said, he believed there would be a more diverse group of people making decisions. "But it became clear to me that people were not interested in the council being paid," said Wilson. "And the discussion" shifted to "making some kind of compensation for expenses. … I was the only one who said openly that I was for paying the city council."
Reach Sara Semelka at (573) 815-1717 or email@example.com.
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