Friday, December 24, 2010

DIRTY LITTLE SECRETS, Part 2: The Hinkson story's larger implications

COLUMBIA, 12/24/10  (Opinion) --  When environmental advocate and Columbia Tribune columnist Ken Midkiff broke a story on the Columbia Citizens listerv about local government's non-transparent dealings with the EPA via attorney David Shorr, I wasn't hugely interested in covering it further. 
I figured my brethren in traditional media would pick it up (which the Missourian did Monday; the Tribune yesterday); covering the news elsewhere has made me short of time these days; and finally, Midkiff had eloquently stated his case in a legitimate public forum, for all to see.
But after reading everything more closely, it became a story about a public policy pundit -- David Shorr -- who has weekly and publicly argued, with righteous gusto both in print and on air, that taxpayers need to pony up for local government;  that local government dissenters and critics need to pipe down; and that our central planners, as it were -- from the city manager to the county commission to REDI, MU, etc. -- are only doing what's best for all of us. 

To learn from Mr. Midkiff and his document dig that Mr. Shorr has been a quiet yet substantial beneficiary of the system he defends with such ferocity -- as a hired attorney at attorney-sized prices -- is galling. 
It reminded me of a story I wrote this week that has Google and Verizon cozying up to the FCC, to the potential detriment of competitors who are rightly riled. 

It also reminded me of Trib publisher Hank Waters and last year's eminent domain eruption; and of assessor Tom Schauwecker's discounted property tax bills for powerful donors. 
When government works without transparency, presenting one face to the public and another face privately, two sets of rules can emerge:  one for those with the money to donate and lobby; and another, much harsher set, for everyone else. 

City manager Bill Watkins should know this.  He should know how important issues like a dirty Hinkson Creek are locally (if he doesn't, he's living on the Moon).   Doing quiet, no-bid contracts with prominent land-use attorneys like Mr. Shorr regarding such important public issues doesn't pass the smell test, and Mr. Watkins should know that, too.  
The expertise argument

I understand the expertise argument that Councilman Thornhill discussed above -- the idea that city, school district, and other paid government staffers have more expertise in their respective disciplines than do volunteer elected representatives.  
Too often, however, that argument gets trotted out when convenient -- and forgotten otherwise. 
Case in point:  From what I've seen, City Hall isn't listening at all to the top sewer expert on the team, Columbia
city sewer services superintendent Bill Weitkemper.
Mr. Weitkemper, many readers may recall, has been struggling to reform a sewer billing problem that, by most estimates, is costing the community over $1 million/year.  It's a billing error that helps some powerful constituents while harming others. 
Ironically, Weitkemper's struggle has been taken away from him, and handed over instead to a mostly non-expert citizen commission. 
The human league

Maybe more importantly, much of the issue Mr. Midkiff has uncovered goes to good human relations.  It's about mutually understanding the need for open dialogs with elected officials, and assuring that hidden agendas don't bulldoze the key relationships our community needs to remain viable and functional. 
First Ward Councilman Paul Sturtz addressed this issue Monday night, ripping the covers off a figurative monster in City Hall's closet. 
Mr. Watkins and some members of his staff often don't treat City Council members with respect.  In fact, the City Attorney and City Public Works director are often openly disdainful.  
Gentlemen, I'll say something that you won't hear most guys ever say:  It hurts when you act like that.  It wounds the soul in that place that longs for connection and respect, especially when you've sacrificed so much to sit at the table of governance.
I'm guilty of the same things, and I've had it done to me, so I speak from the experience of both offender and offended.  But I am not a public official, and my offenses or wounded feelings don't impact an entire community. 
As Mr. Midkiff has rightly pointed out, the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over while expecting a different result.  No good can come from a culture that commits the offense of public disrespect over and over again, and for bringing that core issue out of the shadows, Mr. Midkiff and Mr. Sturtz are to be congratulated. 
They've made pollution in the Hinkson a metaphor for a larger issue.  

1 comment:

  1. Rain Gardens. This is one thing I have heard from Park and Recreation in the near past that when they do a new project that they are required to install a Rain Garden. Just Google Rain Gardens and see what they are all about and how they help the environment.

    Why can't this be a mandate for all new construction areas in the entire area?

    Also this whole IBM push through to get it going bothers me too. Where is their accountability for any run off/pollution running into our water sheds?

    This storm water run off is very serious business because when you cover the natural absorbing soils provided by nature with concrete and asphalt you channel all of the road oils,road grease,auto oil that drips from cars and trucks and all left over litter and it's polluting qualities into one area and it all flows down hill into our water sheds.

    The City Of Columbia needs to stop worrying about stupid bike paths,paint wasted that just fades away after 6 months,parking garages,buying new park lands,painting new buses with Tiger Striping and the other frilly junk and concentrate on this issue or all of our water sheds will stink just as bad as the Sewer Gate deal Mr Watkins was working with M.U. that was finally exposed.

    City Council,The Mayor,City Manager,Public Works Director and all top City Management Officials must be kept honest on all of their dealing.

    Mayor McDavid did not ask me if I wanted him to write a letter to the EPA did he ask any of you? Did you hear him ask the City Council? I sure didn't. How can he say he is speaking for everybody in Columbia or the Council? Paul Sturtz sure did not agree with the letter writing decision now did he?!

    Paul Sturtz is keeping it real and keeping them all honest on this issue and others just as all citizens of Columbia should be doing.