Thursday, November 5, 2009

FAMED MEDIA GURU: "Autopsies" Columbia Tribune

1)  CITY HALL:  Billing mess, legal violations widen
2)  ST. ROMAINE SHOCKER:  Raising rates better than cutting costs
3)  FAMED MEDIA GURU:  "Autopsies" Columbia Tribune 
4)  YULETIDE BUMMER:  Ashland City Hall to hold Christmas party -- out of town!
5)  MU RESEARCHERS:  Put AIDS on a "leash" 
6)  MISSOURI MATH:  Middle school scores improve  
7)  AMAZING ARCHIVE:  Missourian newspapers show Columbia's past 
8)  ONLINE PET GROUP:  Helps MidMo animals
9)  HOUSING NEWS:  With Bank of Missouri's Tom Stone

CITY HALL:  Billing mess, legal violations widen
Part 4 of a series

COLUMBIA, 11/5/09 (Beat Bytes) -- A decades-long practice of underbilling large sewer users may be part of wider failures to follow city law at City Hall.   

Columbia's Protective Inspection Department -- like the sewer utility, a branch of Public Works -- failed to collect sewer connection fees from a Boone Hospital-owned office building, in violation of section 27-52 of Columbia City ordinances.  The fees are assessed to connect newly-constructed buildings to the city sewer. 

"I asked [protective inspection director] John Sudduth how much in sewer connection charges were collected for the 28-unit medical office building across from Boone Hospital at 1605 E. Broadway,"  34-year City of Columbia employee and sewer maintenance superintendent Bill Weitkemper emailed his supervisor, sewer utility manager Terry Hennkens.  "Sudduth's records show that there were never any sewer connection charges collected." 

Weitkemper discovered in March 2006 that city utility accountants weren't billing thousands of sewer utility users, sparking a process that has yet to be resolved.  His alert about the uncollected sewer connection fees set off a similar chain of confusion. 

"Sewer connection fees have been in effect at least as far back as City Ordinance 15324-1, dated 9/2/97.  Connection fees are a significant source of revenue for the sewer utility," Hennkens informed public works operation manager Mary Ellen Lea in a followup email.  "I believe the building Bill Weitkemper is referencing is Plaza 2....Plaza 4 was recently completed this year (2007).  Wonder if a collection fee was collected for it?"

"Good grief," Lea replied.  "Another one for the list.  Only this one is a Protective Inspection issue, not Utility Accounts Billing." 

"The sewer connection fee collection procedure may need to be reviewed," Hennkens added.   


In emails obtained by the Columbia Heart Beat under the Freedom of Information Act, Hennkens -- also a decades-long city employee -- supports fixing the problems Weitkemper identified.  And like Weitkemper, Hennkens expresses frustration with his superiors.

"This situation has been allowed to develop due to the lack of interest in the proper management of sewer utility billing methods since at least 1987," Hennkens told Mary Ellen Lea in a Dec. 20, 2007 email.  "It is something that needs to be addressed."  

Hennkens also seemed surprised about the terms of a University of Missouri/City of Columbia agreement to increase MU's long-underbilled sewer rates, orchestrated without city council approval by public works director John Glascock.

"Discussions have been held with the University about paying for their approximately 8,100 equivalent residential units," Hennkens emailed Weitkemper on July 17, 2008.  "Ironically, they agreed to begin paying more, but Glascock gave them ten years to ramp up to get where they should be."   

Weitkemper characterized the MU/City Hall agreement as illegal, unfair favoritism

"The University of Missouri should not be given ten years to 'ramp up' to what the City and the University both agree the University should be paying," he wrote in a formal report to City Manager Bill Watkins on Sept. 20, 2008.  "This is not supported by ordinance and the multi-family residential property owners were not given this option." 


Expressing concern that his department had been dragged into a problem best resolved elsewhere, Hennkens told Lea he wanted to "get out of the billing process.  It is not an operations and maintenance function.  It is not an engineering function, either.  I prefer to be in the position of pointing out billing questions, not trying to resolve them."

Weitkemper's involvement, Hennkens explained, was problematic too.  "I don't want Bill involved in billing concerns by making inquiries which may result in criticism of him for pointing out what he perceives to be shortcomings of others.  He should not be involved in billing matters at all."   

Blaming a failure to update procedures, Hennkens again referred to a legal and political minefield that recurs repeatedly in the many exchanges about the sewer flap:  City Hall department heads interpreting the law.

"Prior to 1987, when we had a separate Division Head (Sanitary Engineer) for the Sewer Utility, the rates and ordinance interpretations fell upon that person," Hennkens emailed Lea, dropping the problem at her doorstep.  "Since that is no longer the case, you are it." 

"My intention is to get our list of billing concerns to the City Manager, then get it moved to Finance," Lea responded.  "I plan to tell Bill [Watkins] that these things cannot be fixed through Operations, they are billing problems.  We can help with interpretation of ordinances, but we should not the ones trying to fix the problems."

ST. ROMAINE SHOCKER:  Raising rates better than cutting costs

COLUMBIA, 11/5/09 (Beat Bytes) -- In a surprise peak at guiding philosophies behind City Hall decisions, assistant city manager Tony St. Romaine made an unusual admission to sewer maintenance supervisor Bill Weitkemper, who had inquired about the terms of an employee bonus program.

Getting more money from city residents, St. Romaine said, is better than lowering costs at City Hall. 

"Would making a suggestion that resulted in the City collecting significant additional utility revenue qualify an employee for an additional payment or award?" Weitkemper asked St. Romaine in a November 2007 email.

"Absolutely," St. Romaine (left) responded, citing Chapter 19 of the City's personnel rules, which include bonuses for exceptional performance; working beyond the normal schedule; assuming additional duties; and "providing suggestions which result in significant cost savings," a notation St. Romaine underlined -- then undermined!

"I think that ideas that result in increased revenue are just as critical, if not more so, than reducing costs," St. Romaine

FAMED MEDIA GURU:  "Autopsies" Columbia Tribune

COLUMBIA, 11/5/09 (Beat Bytes) -- In a colorful indictment of business as usual at the nation's newspapers, famed media guru and New York University professor Clay Shirky (below) performed an autopsy of sorts at Harvard University's Shorenstein Center -- on a copy of the Columbia Daily Tribune

His conclusion:  "Most of the substantive part of that day’s Trib wasn’t locally created, and most of it wasn’t news." 

Calling the Trib "my old hometown paper," Shirky -- a Columbia native -- "took two copies of the August 27, 2009 edition, slit them down the spine" and separated the content into two piles: "Created" by Tribune staff;  and "Acquired," from the Associated Press (AP) or other outside organizations. 

Like a pathologist weighing heart, lungs, liver, and other organs, Shirky weighed the paper piles in grams.  "The content created by Tribune staff made up less than a third of the total; over two-thirds was acquired from other sources," Shirky wrote.  "The paper was about one-third news and about two-thirds 'Other,'" while "news reported by the paper’s staff was less than a sixth of the total content of the paper." 

Even more surprising to Shirky:  "The number of local reporters who had a byline for hard news in that day’s paper: Six," he wrote.  "Janese Heavin, T.J. Greaney, Brennan David, Terry Ganey, Jonathan Braden, and Jodie Jackson Jr." 

At first blaming "August vacations or a slow news day" for so few local news stories, Shirky settled on "the most parsimonious explanation:  Only six reporters filed news stories that day because the Tribune only has six news reporters, out of a staff list of 59."  

Calling these local reporters "expensive lures put on the outside of a product that included none of their work," Shirky expressed surprise at the long list of staff on the Trib's masthead -- few reporters but plenty of editors, and "lots and lots of columnists, writing columns like Granny’s Notes." 

"There's nothing wrong with reading your horoscope or being reminded by Granny that May really is one of the nicest months of the year," Shirky wrote.  "But it’s not news, it’s not hard to do, and it’s not hard to replace." 

What is hard to replace are good reporters, Shirky argued.   But reporters -- paid for their work (unlike many columnists) -- come and go in this city like the seasons:  Kat Hughes, Matt LeBlanc, Sara Semelka, Jason Rosenbaum, Megan Means, Joe Meyer, and several more at the Trib in the last three years alone.   

"What matters in the Tribune, and what’s at risk," Shirky wrote,  "is Terry Ganey’s work on a state cover up of elevated levels of E. Coli in Ozark lakes; Jonathan Braden on anti-gay protesters from Kansas picketing in Columbia; Jodie Jackson’s reporting of on a child molestation case against a local politician."

The MinnPost ( -- a Minneapolis-based version of the Columbia Heart Beat -- covered Shirky's Columbia Tribune dissection, which they termed a "news biopsy."   

"If you're not hip to media savant Clay Shirky, he's a media futurist and NYU adjunct professor that all the cool kids swoon over," wrote MinnPost editor David Brauer.   "Shirky is unsparing about newspapers, viewing them as inefficient creators of original news content touted as a bulwark of democracy."

About newspapers here Shirky concluded, "There are a dozen or so reporters and editors in Columbia, Missouri, whose daily and public work is critical to the orderly functioning of that town, and those people are trapped inside a burning business model."


YULETIDE BUMMER:  Ashland City Hall to hold Christmas party -- out of town!

ASHLAND, 11/5/09 (Beat Bytes) -- A decision by City of Ashland officials to hold City Hall's annual Christmas party out of town has residents of our neighbor 15 miles to the south feeling Scrooged!

"This is a good example of why so many Ashland businesses are struggling to survive," writes a poster on the message board of that town's newspaper of record, the Boone County Journal.  "A lack of support from the community -- and in this particular instance, City Hall itself!  Whose decision was it?  Mr. Heard's?  I know for a fact that at least two local businesses were not even given the opportunity to 'bid' on this year's dinner."

"Mr. Heard" refers to city administrator Chris Heard, Ashland's equivalent of Bill Watkins.   Similar responses followed. 

"Poor decision, I think, by not supporting a local business," writes "Tony Johnson."

"Are you kidding?  With all the restaurants, banquet/meeting facilities and catering options IN town, the city has chosen to have it's holiday party OUT of town?" writes "Taxpayer."   "I also ask, who's decision was this, our illustrious city administrator?  It is ridiculous, and more than a little sad, that city hall is choosing to not support local business." 


MU RESEARCHERS:  Put AIDS on a "leash"

COLUMBIA, 11/5/09 (Beat Bytes) -- An naturally-occurring antiviral protein aptly called "tetherin" literally puts AIDS-causing HIV on a leash to prevent its escape from infected cells, claims a national research team that includes Devon Gregory and Marc Johnson from the University of Missouri School of Medicine in Columbia. 

Reported in the October 30th issue of the journal Cell, the discovery helped the researchers design an artificial version of tetherin that also keeps the AIDS virus in check.

"Tetherin is essentially a rod with anchors at either end that are critical for its function," said team member Paul Bieniasz of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute.  "One anchor gets into the virus and the other in the cell membrane to form a tether.

The team designed "a completely different protein with the same configuration -- a rod with anchors at either end -- and it worked very well," Bieniasz explained.

Tetherin may exist in different forms, some more effective than others, and the AIDS virus produces proteins that can counteract it, which helps explain why HIV progresses differently in different people.   One goal is to enhance the power of the artificial version through closer examinations of naturally-occurring tetherin's gene sequence. 


AMAZING ARCHIVE:  Missourian newspapers show Columbia's past

COLUMBIA, 11/5/09 (Beat Bytes) -- Want to know what really happened, to the day, in Columbia history?  Check out the amazing online collection of Missourian newspapers dating back eighty years, to the Great Depression.

Maintained at the Missouri Digital Heritage Archive, the collection offers a search feature I've used several times to uncover what really happened when the city last activated a Land Clearance for Redevelopment Authority and used eminent domain,
mostly against the black community. 

The Missouri Digital Heritage Archive has 18 separate collections, all available for viewing online.

The Missourian newspaper collection

Search the Missourian collection

The Missouri Digital Heritage Archive

MISSOURI MATH:  Middle school scores improve 

COLUMBIA, 11/5/09 (Beat Bytes) --  Missouri was among 15 states that showed notable improvement in eighth-grade math performance, says a report released last month.  

The National Assessment of Educational Progress -- aka the "Nation’s Report Card" -- shows that Missouri gained on Kansas, where scores stayed flat.  The math test samples students nationwide every two years in the fourth and eighth grades.  Missouri experienced smaller gains at the fourth grade level, again beating Kansas, although both states show scores well above the national average. 

Missouri did not make any significant progress on narrowing the so-called "achievement gap" between white and black students.   Scores for other academic areas haven't been released yet. 


ONLINE PET GROUP:  Helps MidMo animals

COLUMBIA, 11/5/09 (Beat Bytes) --  An online group dedicated to helping place adoptable animals is now one of mid-Missouri's largest animal welfare confabs, at 324 members.

Started in response to a pet ban on the giant Columbia Freecycle group, Pet Help for Central Mo offers to "help pet owners find a new home for their pets, find a new pet, or ask for help looking for a lost pet.  Or if you have a dog dish, leash, kennel or even extra pet food you no longer need, you are welcome to post that here also." 

The group does not accept posts "for breeding purposes." 

Check them out at: 

HOUSING NEWS:  From Bank of Missouri's Tom Stone


GDP rose by 3.5% for the first gain in a year and the strongest reading in two years.

$8,000 first-time homebuyer tax credit set to expire at the end of this month.

Possible addition of $6,500 tax credit for other primary home purchasers, meaning the tax credit would no longer be limited only to first-time homebuyers.

Possibility that qualifying income limits could increase from $75,000 to $125,000 for singles, and from $150,000 to $250,000 for joint tax filers.


Tom Stone
The Bank of Missouri
Asst. Vice President
3610 Buttonwood Dr, Suite 100
Columbia, MO  65201

Mike Martin
Blogitor in Chief
The Columbia Heart Beat


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