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RUNNING INTERFERENCE: City Manager, Council candidates dispute City Clerk campaign intrusion

Matthes' explanation full of contradictions

COLUMBIA, 1/27/13 (Beat Byte) -- "In our form of government, it is viewed as an imperative that everyone have full information, and that through no act of ours, information be kept from anyone."
 
So said Columbia city manager Mike Matthes to City Council candidate Bill Weitkemper, about a policy some believe is no more than a sly attempt to undermine candidates unpopular with city administrators.
 
When campaign-related information requests come to city officials, the policy requires city clerk Sheela Amin to share the information with all candidates, Matthes explained in an email cc'd to Council members, candidates, and news reporters.

But a political dirt-digging and attack ad controversy during the 2010 City Council race largely contradicts Matthes' explanation, adding fuel to suspicions about his office's motivations.  He also contradicts Amin, who told the Columbia Daily Tribune that the policy is "new."   Matthes' email said it was "not new" and had been used during previous elections. 
 
Double Talk?
 
A Fourth Ward Council contender and retired city management employee, Weitkemper blew the whistle on unfair utility billing practices at City Hall, later winning an award for conscientious public service. Earlier this month, Amin released information Weitkemper had requested about city safety budgets to his two opponents, Ian Thomas and incumbent Councilman Daryl Dudley. Neither Dudley nor Thomas had asked for the information, creating the appearance Amin was merely tipping them off to their opponent's campaign strategy.
 
Matthes' response about the controversy that ensued comes two weeks after he and Amin failed to answer questions from this publication about it.
 
The information sharing policy, Matthes explained, "is borne out of a sense of fair play. If we didn't share the information, we would be (and many government employees throughout the country have been) accused of inappropriately assisting specific candidates to gain an edge over their opponents."

Candidate information sharing is also a longstanding part of City Hall's general business atmosphere, Matthes added. "The city shares information this way on many levels," he said, citing examples. When one vendor asks for bid information, all vendors receive it. When one Council member asks for a report, all Council members receive it.
 
"This practice in not unique to Ward 4 or new," Matthes said.
 
But if that's true, why didn't Amin share information that helped Third Ward Councilman Gary Kespohl gain a decided edge over opponent Karl Skala when the two men squared off in 2010?  Skala doesn't know.
 
Digging Dirt
 
Responding to at least four public information requests, Amin sent virtual reams of documents to attorney Glen Ehrhardt and others who were digging political dirt to use against Skala -- then the Council incumbent -- on Kespohl's behalf.
 
But Amin never shared the information with Skala, the press, or other candidates.  "I knew she had received the requests, but I never received any of the documents she turned over, and to my knowledge, none of the other candidates did either," Skala told the Heart Beat.
 
Kespohl made tremendous political hay out of the information Amin provided, using it against Skala in strident political attack ads and news media interviews
 
Without the information -- in fact, without even knowing what his opponent was seeking -- Skala was disadvantaged, a situation he acknowledges in retrospect. "I don't think there's any question that if I had received the information when Sheela provided it to Glen (and someone else, I think, but I don't recall the name), I would have been better prepared to defend myself," he explained.

Political observers have attributed Kespohl's victory -- on one of the narrowest margins in recent memory -- to the information Amin provided.   In a previous battle, Skala was victorious over Kespohl by roughly the same margin. 
 
Political participation
 
Matthes cited a code of ethics in his email from the International City/County Manager's Association, "which has as one of its tenants (sic), 'Refrain from participation in the election of the members of the employing legislative body, and from all partisan political activities which would impair performance as a professional administrator.'"
 
But participation in the election is exactly what the manager's office seems to be doing.  Matthes rattled off a list of ways his office participates: the information sharing policy; a candidate orientation; and candidate receipt of a "current events email my office sends to Council Members."
 
All the contradictions have Weitkemper scratching his head. "I am disappointed with your response," he emailed Matthes.
 
 
 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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