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Columbia City Council lacks residency requirements while Jefferson City debates their removal

COLUMBIA, Mo. (KMIZ)

Just because someone represents part of a city in a local government, it doesn't mean they actually live there.

But that doesn't stop them from making important decisions that affect the lives of people living there.

Columbia First Ward Councilwoman Pat Fowler owns a home on Sixth Street in the ward she represents. But she only stays in Columbia two or three nights a week. Fowler had a full-time job in Platte County, Missouri, in the northern part of the Kansas City area, when she was elected in 2020. She still has the same job.

Fowler drives more than 300 miles round-trip to work -- five hours in the car. She says she maintains this lifestyle to keep her job and perform her duties on the council. She rents a basement to stay overnight in Platte County.

"Some days I'm so tired, I'm crabby," Fowler said. "But most days I appreciate I have the capacity to do the work."

Fowler says her constituents tell her she's more accessible than other First Ward council members, despite the split work/home life. She insists that she is indeed accessible.

Now, the situation has become an issue in her reelection campaign.

Last week, the Columbia Professional Firefighters union endorsed Fowler's opponent, Nick Knoth.

The union president, Zak Privette, said he tried to set up times to meet with both candidates to discuss public safety issues. But Fowler couldn't meet on a weekday.

"We have council members that live and work in Kansas City and are trying to represent some portion of the population here," Privette said.

Privette said he questions whether Fowler can put the appropriate amount of time working on important issues.

"What time does Ms. Fowler have if she can't be with us for 30 minutes or an hour?" Privette said. "What time can she put into our issues? In the public safety world, when she's making a vote on council?"

Leaders in Jefferson City are debating residency requirements for certain positions.

"I just think that the taxpayers in this community want to be represented by other people that pay taxes and live here and spend their time here," Fourth Ward Councilman Ron Fitzwater said.

Mayor Carrie Tergin wants to open a position up to those living outside limits. She says the city should keep up with the times. Much of Jefferson City's growth is happening on its periphery.

Some council members don't like the idea. It led to a debate at a Jan. 3 council meeting.

Jan. 3 Jefferson City Council meeting

City Manager De'Carlon Seewood is the only city employee required to live within Columbia city limits.

Seewood said it's hard to hire staff, even without residency requirements.

"It used to be you had a job open up in the city, you'd get 500 applicants," he said. "Now, today, you're lucky to sometimes get 10."

A few other city department directors live outside of Columbia, in nearby towns such as Hallsville and Harrisburg.

Some ask what "residing" really means. Is owning property, getting mail and voting more important than where time is spent?

"It's all completely legal, of course! But is it fair?," Folwer asks. "Fair to whom? Fair to the people living here? You would have to ask my neighbors and First Ward residents."

Fowler said she wishes she could find a well-paying job in Columbia like the one she has now in Platte County. Columbia City Council is a part-time position and pays $6,000 per year.

Seewood said the City of Columbia is currently looking into ways to incentivize leaders to live within city limits. The topics discussed include down payment assistance, affordable housing, work flexibility and competitive pay.

Article Topic Follows: Local Politics

Marissa Hollowed

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Matthew Sanders

Matthew Sanders is the digital content director at ABC 17 News.

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