Wednesday, November 11, 2009

CITY MANAGER: Approval rating in Bush territory

1)  CITY MANAGER:  Approval rating in Bush territory
2)  CITY MANAGER:  Why the low approval rating?
3)  POLLING LEADERS:  Council pay, "Other," Greever-Rice
4)  READER CONDEMNS:  "Hidden" MU tuition hikes
5)  ROCK BRIDGE:  High school team leads nation in science/math
6)  MU NURSING PROF:  Landmark study makes national headlines 
7)  MU PREZ FORSEE:  To hold "Town Hall" meetings
8)  DINERS REVIEW:   Sparky's Ice Cream
9)  READERS WRITE:  Editor responds to Trib "autopsy" 

CITY MANAGER:  Approval rating in Bush territory

COLUMBIA, 11/9/09 (Beat Bytes) --  With his percentage approval ratings stuck in the high 30s, Columbia city manager Bill Watkins (left) is enjoying the kind of support accorded George W. Bush in his last year as president.  A recently-concluded Columbia Heart Beat poll of 580 readers taken over six months has Mr. Watkins holding firm at around 37% approval and 63% disapproval

President George W. Bush achieved similar ratings during his last year in office, according to national pollster Rasmussen Reports:

It may be tempting for some to dismiss the low ratings as the inevitable result of an "anti-establishment" readership.  But the same Heart Beat poll showed establishment leaders Bob Roper and Vicki Riback-Wilson well ahead of every other hypothetical candidate for Columbia mayor. 

Heart Beat readers are a well-informed, broad and diverse slice of Columbia and Boone County, a sizeable majority of which apparently don't like what they see at the top of City Hall. 

CITY MANAGER:  Why the low approval rating?

COLUMBIA, 11/9/09 (Commentary) --  Why the low approval rating for city manager Bill Watkins, who took office with unanimous council approval after long-time manager Ray Beck retired?   Impressions may hold the key. 

"Bill Watkins is a lot less visible than Mr. Beck was," explained a long-time city employee.  "Mr. Beck used to visit all the departments regularly; we rarely see Mr. Watkins.  A lot of people have the impression that he's aloof and removed." 

That doesn't mean Mr. Watkins is doing a poor job.  In fact, most tasks he oversees -- from the new city hall to sewer improvements in the Old Southwest -- are completed on time and on budget.  Current high--profile projects, from tree trimming to water main replacement to the restoration of the Blind Boone home, seem to be going equally well. 

But the impression remains that something is wrong, and impressions are everything in the business of governing.  If one impression stands out to this writer, it is that Mr. Watkins favors wealthy power players over John and Jane Q Average, a situation that places him squarely in conflict with this generally-liberal college town's guiding ethos. 

A simple constituency check bears out this idea.   

FAVORED:   Hank Waters and the honchos behind the State Historical Society;  the TIF crowd; developers pitching projects like Cross Creek and the Lemone/Maguire Blvd. extension; a giant city-owned parking garage; senior level city administrators hired at 20% higher salaries; large utility rate payers like MU and the Columbia Mall.   

NOT FAVORED:  Paquin Towers; the Central Missouri Humane Society; lower-level city employees; the average utility rate payer; and those volunteer legislators we call the Columbia City Council. 

A recent difference of opinion with 1st Ward councilman Paul Sturtz over the restoration of the historic Heibel-March Store by First Chance for Children, as reported in the Columbia Tribune, provides an even better illustration. 

"We are skeptical that the building can be renovated for the numbers they’ve suggested," Watkins said.  "The Community Development Commission recommended First Chance for Children receive $50,000.  Sturtz said he will vote for funding for the renovation.  Watkins recommended no money." 

But Mr. Watkins did recommend using $250,000 from the Convention and Visitors Bureau to support the state historical society museum during eminent domain flap late last year.  The impression of favoritism is hard to miss.   

I vigorously supported Bill Watkins' candidacy to replace Ray Beck.   I spoke with and/or emailed every council person, citing his stellar performance as mediator and leader on a committee he and I shared.  As the former chairperson of the city's finance commission, and a member of the city's historic preservation commission, I saw in Mr. Watkins a firm yet gentle hand that could guide Columbia for years to come. 

But his guiding hands have not proven particularly gentle. 
Take the dispute between manager and council that broke out last year over hefty salary increases for senior city administrators, precipitated by the hiring of City and Light director Kraig Kahler, who resigned this year under a cloud. 

Third Ward Councilman Karl Skala wanted more information about the proposed 20% pay hike; Mr. Watkins rebuked him for asking.

In an email he cc'd to the city council and other department heads, Mr. Watkins reminded that Section 12 of the City Charter prohibits any council action -- like asking too many questions, apparently -- that may be construed as "interference" with the city manager's personnel decisions.  He also reminded of the penalty for such interference:  Removal from the city council. 

Invariably, Columbia's establishment rallied to Mr. Watkins' defense, taking to the airwaves and the newspapers, scolding Skala and by proxy, every other council member. 

I empathized with Skala.  He's an unpaid volunteer up against a guy making $150,000/year and a considerable city staff, including city attorney Fred Boeckmann, who also chimed in on the issue.  I thought about how I'd feel:  Isolated, alone, like a child scolded for getting out of line. 

The dispute over Mr. Kahler wasn't the first time Mr. Watkins responded to council members in a way I felt lacked empathy.  They work long hours for no money; have no dedicated help from city staff; get blamed for everything that goes wrong; and get little credit for things that go right.  Mr. Watkins' often public opposition to their positions -- witness Sturtz in the example above, and the sustainability director skirmish -- diminishes their morale, hurting the people -- us -- they represent. 

We have empowered council members with a sacred trust.  They aren't perfect and they certainly don't know everything, but the people who work for them should respect that trust.  

I lay the blame for a lot of this at the feet of our local special interests, who know where the power lies and in lobbying that power, engender a culture of disregard for elected council members.

You don't, after all, see Columbia Tribune publisher Hank Waters lobbying Mr. Skala, or any council person, or even the mayor himself.  Waters -- and the other power players around him -- stick with the city manager, a convenient one-stop shop, they apparently believe, for meddling and peddling. 


COUNCIL PAY:  Poll shows 2:1 approval

COLUMBIA, 11/9/09 (Beat Bytes) -- Columbia Heart Beat readers support paying city council members almost 2:1.  In a poll with 92 votes so far, 59% support council pay; 31% say no; and 8% remain undecided.

In two recently closed polls, council candidate Tracy Greever-Rice led with a significant margin in the 4th Ward city council race and among named potential candidates, former city councilman Larry Schuster led for mayor.   "Other," however, still maintained the greatest lead. 

Updated polls with recently declared candidates will go up shortly. 


READER CONDEMNS:  "Hidden" MU tuition hikes 

I send this email to you, Mike, with a certain trepidation from an email account that cannot easily be traced back to me.  I am an MU alum, parent and faculty member.  I take issue with this paragraph from the October 22 Columbia Daily Tribune article on page 12A, Financial outlook could mean higher tuition:

"MU's tuition -- $245.60 per credit hour for resident undergraduates -- remained flat this year in a deal between public universities and Gov. Jay Nixon.  Nixon vowed to not withhold money for higher education if universities agreed to not raise tuition."

What a scam!  There was a deal all right -- a wink and a nod among curators, administrators and the governor's office because they created a technicality two years ago that allowed them to publicly brag about not raising tuitition.  I've been biting my tongue for two years but seeing this article in the Tribune made me decide to point this out to someone. 

My sense is that you are the only person who might actually dig into it.
Starting two years ago, supplemental per-semester-hour fees were quietly added to student bills while tuition "remained flat." The original concept was that certain courses had unusual expenses associated with them that justified an added fee over and above the ordinary credit-hour fee.  Such fees required approval by the chancellor's office, but they quickly spread across colleges and got tacked on to all courses within each of several colleges.  Supplemental fees have become a cash cow for some departments.

As a faculty member, I acknowledge that without them, many departments would be operating in the red from budget shortfalls. 
But as a parent and alum, I am furious about the duplicity of MU administration.  Undergraduate engineering students have actually seen their fees increase by a whopping 23%, when you add the $54.50 per credit hour "Additional Course Fee" to base tuition of $245.60 per credit hour.  

Handily, as a "supplemental fee," additional course fees are not covered by tuition waivers for graduate students or by tuition reduction benefits for dependents of MU employees. 

A full-time undergraduate in engineering taking a 15-hour load now pays an extra $817.50 per semester in additional course fees.  See the chart below from the MU Undergraduate Admissions website at
Additional Course Fees

Agriculture, Food and Natural Resources $40.30/credit hour
Business $34.60/hr
Education $34.60/hr
Engineering $54.50/hr
Human Environmental Sciences  $37.50/hr
Journalism $40.30/hr
Allied Health $53.30/hr
Science Lab $10.80/hr

You can call it what you want, but the bottom line is that an "additional course fee" is a hidden tax that hits students and parents in the pocketbook BIG TIME.  So MU administrators really need to stop whining in the newspaper about budget shortfalls and patting themselves on the back because "MU's tuition...remained flat..."  That, frankly, is a big fat lie. 

Political shenanigans and technical half truths do not enhance the university's public image in the long run, and the truth needs to come out.

Ticked Off MU Parent!

ROCK BRIDGE:  High school team leads nation in science/math

COLUMBIA, 11/9/09 (Beat Bytes) -- A two-person Rock Bridge High School team has been named among the nation's finest in the prestigious Siemens Competition in Math, Science, and Technology, an elaborate national science fair that has seen previous winners invent anti-bacterial coatings for medical devices; seek cures for drug-resistant Tuberculosis; and develop a device to generate energy from ocean waves.

The only Missouri team to receive the honor, Qinqin Yu and Sarah Kang were among five top regional teams in the 2009-2010 competition.  They head to the University of Notre Dame with 14 other finalists November 13 and 14 to compete for scholarship money.  Winners of the regional events compete at the National Finals at New York University in New York City, December 3 - December 7, 2009.

Follow the action on Twitter Saturday, November 14, 2009 between 6:30
pm and 9:30 pm EST, when winners are announced. 

MU NURSING PROFESSOR:  Landmark study makes national headlines

COLUMBIA, 11/9/09 (Beat Bytes) -- A landmark MU study about the benefits of on-the-job exercise has made national headlines.

Workplace exercise programs can improve fitness, cut cholesterol levels, reduce job stress and improve attendance, lead author Vicki S. Conn of the University of Missouri School of Nursing told Reuters late last month.  Conn and colleagues studied the effects of workplace exercise programs on some 38,000 people, finding that the best programs include on-site gyms and the ability for people to exercise during the workday.

Published in the October issue of the American Journal of Preventive Medicine, Conn's research is part of a larger National Institutes of Health-funded effort.


MU PREZ FORSEE:  To hold "Town Hall" meetings

COLUMBIA, 11/9/09 (Beat Bytes) --  University of Missouri president Gary Forsee will hold Town Hall meetings this month and next, he announced in a November 6 email entitled Budget challenges ahead. 

"I will be conducting Town Hall meetings on each of our four campuses and the system office over the next 30 days," Forsee wrote.   "I want to be sure we have ample opportunity to engage in a discussion about balancing how we plan to deal with ongoing financial challenges with the important actions we need to focus on to ensure our continued strength for the next decade!" 

Forsee also discussed the issue of "flat tuition" criticized in the article above.   "Last week, Gov. Nixon announced significant cuts in this year’s state government budget," Forsee wrote.  "While the university’s core budget has been protected from cuts because we agreed to hold tuition flat, nearly $5 million in cuts to programs outside of the university’s core budget...reflect the state’s budget challenges ahead." 

Forsee said he wants to examine "several new initiatives" and "some historic paradigms...about the value and cost of higher education." 

He also included links to recent comments to the Board of Curators: 

DINERS REVIEW:  Sparky's Ice Cream

COLUMBIA, 11/9/09 (Beat Bytes) -- Reviewing an ice cream parlor as winter approaches may seem odd, but Sparky's Home Made Ice Cream in downtown Columbia will stay open until Christmas Eve, a first-ever seasonal extension -- and possible benefit of global warming.

"Hands down the BEST ice cream in Columbia.  Sparky's is THE place to go for real, real, real ice cream," writes one enthusiastic diner at   

"I had a Guinness (beer) float with a scoop of hazelnut ice cream," writes another fan.  "Where else can you get good ice cream and booze?" 

Comparing Sparky's and Coldstone's, one diner writes, "Sparky's wins because it's not too rich or heavy. The flavors are more creative, and your teeth won't disintegrate afterward. Plus: alcoholic beverage ice cream floats. The best of childhood paired with the best of adulthood." 

READ 15 Sparky's REVIEWS AT:

READERS WRITE:  Editor responds to Trib "autopsy"  

Mike:   Clay Shirky could have added a bit of clarity to his analysis had he called me. 

The misnamed "staff" directory at, the Web version of the Columbia Daily Tribune, includes 17 folks who would more accurately be called contributors.  They are mostly members of the community who contribute weekly or biweekly columns.  That brings the number of editorial staff to 40.

Of the 40 staffers accurately listed as news staff, seven are beat or general assignment reporters; one covers business, three cover arts and entertainment; one writes and edits a Sunday lifestyles section; and one writes and edits the weekly food section. 

Seven of those 40 write and edit sports full time.  Four are full-time news and sports photographers. Two are editors on the city desk; five are copy editors; and one is the managing editor. The librarian is also listed.

Every one of those folks, right down to the news clerk who compiles and composes the daily arrest report and obituaries, contributes significantly to the daily report of local news. To count byline articles only as news and to discard local content such as sports, obituaries, arrests, calendars, columns and features underestimates the value of that news content to readers of community newspapers.

My direct telephone number is 815-XXXX, Mike.  I would be delighted to talk to you anytime you want to check the accuracy of information you report about the Columbia Tribune.  Thanks.
-- Jim Robertson, Managing Editor, Columbia Daily Tribune


Mike Martin
Blogitor in Chief
The Columbia Heart Beat


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