A former Mayor's frank observations and counter-intuitive sensibilities
COLUMBIA, 9/6/11 (Beat Byte) -- Bob Pugh (left) seems bemused by the brouhaha surrounding Ward reapportionment in Columbia. The chairman of the city's Ward Reapportionment Committee (WRC), the former Columbia Mayor and MBS Textbooks CEO sees his mission as straightforward redistricting based on population, not politics.
But politics have dominated the dais during a summertime debate that has seen surprisingly strong turnouts at public hearings, with neighbors arguing the pros and cons of various Committee plans they worry could reduce their representation on the Columbia City Council.
Almost painfully frank, Pugh strikes most people as a man who suffers no fools. He's also a man of contradictions: a well-regarded establishment leader with a powerful contrarian streak unlikely to let pro-development interests on his committee swing the debate any more than progressives.
At 71, Pugh shies from the limelight seemingly content to delegate. Introducing himself as "completely out of date" and laden with "administrivia" at a July 14 public hearing, Pugh did little more than thank individual speakers and move the discussion along.
His quietly gruff demeanor, however, belies a watchful eye quick to correct misconceptions, starting with the idea that Columbia's First Ward -- at the center of the reapportionment debate -- has a largely black population.
"Obviously you have not read the data," Pugh told me. "Presently the First Ward contains 2,567 black people or 19% of the population. There are 10,946 non-black residents -- or 81%. There are about 900 more black people living in the Third Ward than the First Ward. So which Ward is more largely black?"
Pugh's command of such demographics is important, particularly as race and income have played a potent role in the reapportionment debate. Worries about minority marginalization, vocalized by Committee member Michelle Gadbois and reiterated during public testimony by Minority Men's Network president Steve Calloway and others, are among top issues WRC members have confronted.
Pugh apparently took Gadbois' concerns -- that certain of the Ward Reapportionment plans could violate the 1965 Voting Rights Act -- seriously enough to analyze them.
"Michelle did not say any of the reapportionment plans violated the Act," he explained. "She offered the idea as a caution. The committee discussed the issue and concluded it was not an issue. If you read a summary of the Act, you will reach the same conclusion."
Diversity -- in race, income, and representation -- is another issue WRC members have grappled and one Pugh sees in a logical but counter-intuitive way. Though the concept has arisen repeatedly, it remains unquantified, undefined, and subjective, he explained. He's also befuddled that the very people who oppose being included in the First Ward also champion diversity.
"The same folks who claim to be 'progressive' and active and embrace diversity yet object to being included in the First Ward," Pugh explained. "It makes you wonder why."
Why, because given its traditionally low voter turnout, "might including more 'progressive' and 'active' voters make the First Ward more diverse?" Pugh asked. "A different mixture of folks, some apathetic -- some active. Does this qualify as making the Ward more diverse than it is today?"
But Pugh perceives diversity as an "intra-Ward" issue, whereas neighbors in Benton Stephens and the Old Southwest, who could find themselves consolidated into the First Ward if certain reappportionment plans are approved, see diversity as an "inter-Ward" issue.
The distinction is critical.
The distinction is critical.
Consolidating central city neighborhoods may increase diversity in one Ward, but it would decrease diversity on the City Council, reducing central city representation by as much as two Council votes. Therein lies the concern and an ongoing dispute.
NEXT TIME: Does City Hall neglect the First Ward?