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The Columbia Heart Beat -- 11/11/05: The Skala-Ash Debates, Pt. 1

Columbia's version of Lincoln and Douglas


COLUMBIA, Mo 11/11/05 (Archive) -- Before he became a Columbia City Councilman, citizen activist Karl Skala wanted a "fresh face" to replace retiring city manager Ray Beck, whom many considered the very definition of a crony capitalist.   Beck's long-time understudy, Bill Watkins, applied to take the top spot.  Skala was not pleased. 

Sixth Ward Columbia City Councilman Brian Ash supported Watkins.  Skala's "freshness" argument, Ash said, reminded him of a tampon commercial. 

So began Skala's raucous, lively, heartfelt, and memorable Clash with Ash over free speech, citizen engagement, and small-town snobbery, with Ash's insistence Skala -- and his band of not-so-merry pranksters -- pipe down about city affairs.

Hundreds of people across several Columbia-area listservs witnessed the weeks-long email tussle, which helped propel the populist Skala, fresh from an activist victory of his own, toward the forefront of city politics, while souring voters on Ash-style elitism.  

The debate prompted newspaper columns about people power; cemented social media as a new form of political roundtable; and was the deciding factor in this writer's decision to support Mr. Skala's successful first run for the Columbia City Council's 3rd Ward seat, which he holds today.  

Councilman Fred Schmidt re-ignited the Ash/Skala argument this month, when he suggested severe restrictions on public speaking at Council meetings.   Meanwhile, rumor has it Mr. Skala may seek the Mayor's chair, while Mr. Ash left Columbia after selling his restaurant, Bambinos, which has since closed. 

And now, to the Skala-Ash Debates, Part 1, which started with this email from Mr. Skala about his pick for the city manager's job.  The email has been edited for brevity (not Mr. Skala's long suit). 


First of all, my choices, from the most desirable to the least desirable City Manager Candidate:


1.)  Mr. Sean Stegall
2.)  Mr. Larry Stevens
3.)  Mr. Norton Bonaparte
4.)  Mr. Stephen Rasmussen
5.)  Mr. Bill Watkins

General comments:  Of course, it goes without saying that the most important criterion for the selection of Columbia¹s new City Manager is competence and intelligence. It seems to me that all of the candidates are qualified in those areas. The next most important criterion is a fresh perspective (unfortunately, this shifts Mr. Watkins to the end of the list; more on that below).

Other important criteria are workable innovative approaches, experience (administrative, financial, planning & growth, interpersonal, comparable city size, etc.) and a demonstrated ability to balance the policy making needs of the City Council with the needs of those who petition the Council and those who elect the Council and pay the bills.

Specific comments:

Mr. Stegall -- I was impressed by Mr. Stegall, though I would not have expected that given his relative youth and, as a consequence of his youth, his relative lack of experience.  On the other hand, that may be precisely what we need in Columbia.

Certainly, by definition, he cannot qualify for the "good ol' boys" club. 

In addition, I appreciated his answers to several questions, particularly those dealing with the importance interactions with Neighborhood Associations, the recognition that despite the fact that Tax Incentive Financing (TIF) may be a useful growth tool (I don't happen to agree, here), such a tool is less necessary if robust growth is extant, and the fact that he seemed to have a handle on the language of growth management planning with his reference to sub-area planning.  I also appreciated his reference to legislative lobbying on behalf of the arts in his community.


Mr. Watkins -- ­ First of all, let me say that I like Bill Watkins, as a person. I have also worked with Mr. Watkins, both in my capacities as Planning & Zoning Commissioner (when he was the Interim Planning Director) and as a Chamber Government Affairs Committee member and TARRIF member (and in his capacity as Assistant City Manager). Mr. Watkins is certainly competent, perhaps uniquely competent given his tenure in Columbia, but that can either result in good or bad outcomes, depending on your perspective.

As an insider, he especially knows how to favorably cast local concerns, but one must remember that he has been a loyal and longstanding member of the team that has certainly failed to address many of those concerns.

Beyond competence, I believe that the single most important qualification for the new Columbia City Manager is freshness.  Like it or not, Mr. Watkins is a "good 'ol boy," at least by association. 

That, for me, would be sufficient to disqualify his selection, but I have had two experiences with Mr. Watkins that raise further questions of unsuitability.  First, his advocacy of rezoning applications clearly favoring commercial development violated the spirit of the unbiased application research and independent recommendations of the Planning and Development Department.  

Second, his presumptive leadership role as a non-member Chair of the Mayor's Transportation Advisory Committee and his subsequent role in the city's attempts to mislead the voters with regard to the road tax and development charge issues that prompted the formation of Citizens for Timely and Responsible Road Infrastructure Financing (TARRIF).

If I could presume to advise Mr. Watkins in his efforts to seek the position of Columbia City Manager, I would suggest that he first secure a City Manager's position elsewhere for 3 or 4 years with the expectation of returning to Columbia as a much stronger and much more independent candidate.

Best Regards,

Karl Skala


On 11/5/05 12:05 PM, "Brian Ash" <brian@...> wrote:

Karl,

Just so you know (and I hesitate passing this along for fear of unleashing an avalanche of E-mails) but I've heard from quite a few more people who would like to see Mr. Watkins get the job than those who want "the freshness" (which by the way, sounds more like a requirement for feminine hygiene products than a City Mgr -- but I digress).

Anyway, we don't take a straw poll for these type of decisions but I just wanted you to know that there's a crowd sympathetic to your views that would very much agree with you;  and there's another crowd that feels exactly the opposite. 

Both sides have substantial numbers so all that means is no matter what we choose we'll have a bunch of people mad at us (what's new?)...

Brian


On 11/05/05 2:13 PM, "Karl Skala" <skalak@...> wrote:

Brian,

I appreciate your prompt response.  We can certainly agree to disagree.  There is no "perfect" City Manager, but whoever is selected will have an extremely challenging job in a rapidly growing 21st century city. I think that I can safely say, however, that my primary criterion of "freshness" for the next City Manager has considerable community wide support, Mr. Watkins insider experience, notwithstanding.

Thanks for listening.

Best Regards,

Karl

On 11/5/05 3:05 PM, "Brian Ash" <brian@...> wrote:

Karl,

I think the Mayor worked on the final list of questions with the moderators to try to get a fairly broad list, but all of Council wasn't directly involved.  I am fairly certain that more questions were submitted than time permitted.

I don't share your concerns about Bill. I view his experience as an asset, not a detriment, but am trying to weigh if that would be a temporary or a long-term advantage and if one of the other four bring something significant enough to the table to outweigh the "known quantity" we have in Mr. Watkins.

I can honestly say we are going to have a very difficult decision given that we have five extremely well qualified candidates. 

The good news is that I feel confident that any of the five would do an excellent job, so I'm not too worried about making the wrong choice, but there's going to be quite a bit of debate and careful consideration before we make our decision.

I wish we could take bits and pieces from each of them to create the "perfect" City Manager.

Thank you for the inputs,

Brian


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