Five candidates — two for Columbia mayor and three people seeking two school board seats — discussed the issues in a debate and forum Thursday night. Below are updates from the event.
A playback of the live video stream is available in the player below.
VIDEO PLAYBACK OF THE EVENT
The candidates in closing statements made a final appeal to voters. Atkins noted the likely low turnout for the April election and encouraged people to get out to the polls. Streaty-Wilhoit said voters should select her “not because I’m a woman or minority, but because I’m the best candidate,” citing her educator experience.
Willoughby touted his endorsements by local education associations.
The panel asked the candidates about an issue that has been a priority for Columbia Public Schools administrators for several years — the achievement gap between white students and minorities and between low-income children and other kids.
Streaty-Wilhoit answered first, noting that the achievement gap is there for many reasons including social inequity and unconscious bias. Children should be taught about such bias, she said, and making sure children are in school is the most important aspect of closing the gap.
Willoughby said making sure children are in school and reducing the gap in how outside the classroom discipline such as suspension is used among students of different races. Teachers also need to be trained in recognizing cultural bias, he said.
Atkins said focusing on increasing literacy is the best way to close the gap. He said increasing literacy can break generational poverty.
ABC 17’s Lucas Geisler asked a two-part question: How can the district best ease the pain of redrawing school boundaries and what kind of job did the board did when it recently redrew lines for middle and high schools.
Atkins said the most recent process failed to accomplish its two main objectives — to relieve overcrowding in current schools and to foster social equity in the schools. He criticized the job done by a consulting firm the district hired to help draw new lines.
Streaty-Wilhoit said some will inevitably be disappointed with the process but better communication with parents is necessary to help make the process easier.
Willoughby agreed that better communication is needed and suggested meeting parents where they are instead of expecting working parents to come to night meetings.
The first question for school board candidates was whether they support a push to arm teachers in school.
The candidates all agreed that all teachers should not be allowed to have guns, but differed slightly on whether guns should be in play at all in schools.
Jay Atkins said he feels a district should be able to designate, if allowed by law, a small, trained group of people who can have access to guns safely stored in case of a crisis. He said schools also need to be secure and have places where students and teachers can hide from attackers.
Della Streaty-Wilhoit said she doesn’t support guns in school whatsoever. Teachers should concentrate on teaching children, she said.
Blake Willoughby said parents and teachers he has talked to do not support guns in schools, but acknowledged there is likely some support for the idea in the community. He stressed the need to give staff members proper training on what to do in a crisis.
School board candidates Jay Atkins, Della Streaty-Wilhoit and Blake Willoughby begin their forum with opening statements. The three political newcomers are vying for two seats on the board.
Moderator and Columbia Daily Tribune Managing Editor Charles Westmoreland asked one final question about Mayor Brian Treece’s lobbying firm, TreecePhillips, having represented a company in Missouri that committed Medicaid fraud in Arkansas.
Kelly said Treece, whose company was paid hundreds of thousands by Preferred Healthcare, had to have known about the investigation long before he severed ties with the company last summer.
Treece said he ended the relationship because he felt the company was “a client we should not represent” because of the investigation. He said he is “proud of our record of service” in regard to his company.
The final panel question was about whether Columbia’s current “weak mayor” form of government is better than a “strong mayor” form of government in which an elected mayor is a full-time official given more powers than the Columbia mayor.
Kelly said the current form of city government, with a city manager with wide powers and a mayor with fewer powers, works well despite some flaws. The form has strong checks and balances and limits on power, he said.
Treece said the form of government works well under a responsible city manager, using former leader Mike Matthes as an example of a poor city manager. Treece said he believes the manager should respect the will of voters as represented by the city council.
The first question from the audience was about whether the Columbia Police Department should be investigated after a locally-produced documentary was released that looked at the department’s interactions with a convicted pimp.
Treece and Kelly agreed that such an investigation would have to be ordered by the city manager. The decision should be made by staff and not the mayor, they said.
The candidates were asked how to reduce crime in Columbia.
Kelly said the city government needs to restore citizens’ confidence in police and restore morale on the police force, in part through hiring more officers and paying officers more. However, Kelly said the money to do so can’t be found in the current budget, calling such an idea “a fantasy.”
Treece, who when running for the first time in 2016 said he would look for money in the budget for more officers, said the city council took leadership on police issues. The council asked former city manager Mike Matthes several times to manage former police chief Ken Burton more closely and pushed Matthes out when he did not, Treece said.
Treece also said the city under his leadership began paying veteran officers more. He also said community policing in some areas of the city has reduced crime.
ABC 17’s Lucas Geisler asked the candidates about their thoughts on the Henderson Branch sewer project that was originally planned as part of a voter-approved bond issue but later rejected by the city council.
Each candidate said private enterprise that benefits from the project should pay for their fair share. Landowners including manufacturer Midway USA would have been served by the project that would run a sewer line west of the current Columbia city limits and annex several parcels.
However, Kelly said the city should have found a way to keep the promise to voters while striking an appropriate deal with landowners.
ABC 17’s Lucas Geisler asked candidates about the importance of diversity in public life in Columbia and Columbia Chamber of Commerce President Matt McCormick asked how to reconcile a push for higher connection and development fees with the push for affordable housing.
Treece said he has worked to make sure women and minorities are included in employment and business opportunities, including investment in lower-income neighborhoods through the city’s strategic plan.
Kelly said helping those who don’t historically have as many resources available to them is important, including women and minorities.
On the fee question, both candidates cited a need to balance the city’s dependence on such revenue with the need for affordable housing.
Treece cited efforts toward equity in housing and housing at a low price, such as the city’s Fair Housing Task Force and the work of the Columbia Community Land Trust.
Kelly said the city needs to find a “sweet spot” between the need to pay for infrastructure and the need for affordable housing. He cited the viewpoints of two well-known opponents on the issue — developer Randy Coil and Third Ward Councilman Karl Skala, who has pushed for higher fees for builders.
Columbia Mayor Brian Treece led off the mayoral debate with opening statements that included a list of accomplishments of his first term.
Among them is that the city added 1,000 new jobs and became more transparent.
“And we’ve restored confidence in a government that is open, honest and transparent.,” Treece said. He said the city needs steady leadership.
Treece also touted his work on anti-discrimination and equity ordinances and comprehensive zoning reform.
Kelly leaned on his record as a state legislator, referencing his work to get funding for projects such as an overpass serving the Columbia Regional Airport and funding for a new engineering school at the Univeristy of Missouri.
The first question asked how the candidates would ensure Columbia’s financial health. Kelly answered first, attacking Treece and the city council for revising a staff estimate of a 2 percent decrease in sales tax revenue for the fiscal year to a 1 percent drop.
Treece said the sales tax revenue collections have not been reported and disputed Kelly’s claim that the budget is out of balance. Treece said the 1 percent drop projection actually came from staff members.