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CARRIE: Conflict questions draw angry response from downtown/CID leader

Gartner calls "Blight Board" charges "demeaning, highly inappropriate, and truly insulting"

 
COLUMBIA, 3/26/12  (Beat Byte) -- Questions about a personal relationship between downtown Community Improvement District (CID) director Carrie Gartner and Columbia School Board member Jonathan Sessions are "demeaning, highly inappropriate and truly insulting," Gartner told the Columbia Heart Beat. 
 
Mr. Sessions, 29, and Ms. Gartner, 46, have been serving together on City Hall's new Enhanced Enterprise Zone (EEZ) board, aka the "Blight Board."  With promises of up to 100% property tax abatement for businesses and concerns about how blight designations can lead to eminent domain and property value loss under Missouri state law, the EEZ program has proven highly controversial.   The EEZ board is charged with granting tax abatement requests, determining which properties to blight, and a number of other important functions. 
 
The Columbia Heart Beat emailed inquiries to both Mr. Sessions and Ms. Gartner last Thursday.   "The main beef is that, as a very public 'couple,' neither of you function as independent votes on a comparatively small panel," we wrote, asking for comment.  "Jonathan will vote with Carrie.  Carrie will vote with Jonathan.  Meanwhile, the public is deprived of the kind of substantive disagreements and debates one expects from all representatives in a democracy."
 
On Friday, Mr. Sessions announced he was resigning from the EEZ board over the controversy.   He did not respond to our inquiry. 
 
"From a personal standpoint, I interpret your accusation to imply that a woman cannot use independent judgment because of a personal relationship with a man," Ms. Gartner told the Heart Beat.   "Frankly, that offends me."   
 
Despite Ms. Gartner's protests, the couple has acted as a public relations tag team since a Feb. 6 Columbia City Council meeting established the EEZ board and blighted nearly 60% of the city to qualify for the program.    Athough neither the School Board nor the CID have formally endorsed the EEZ, both Mr. Sessions and Ms. Gartner have repeatedly advocated for it on behalf of those organizations.   
 
Mr. Sessions "urged" Council members to adopt the EEZ as a "great opportunity," elaborating about School Board support.  As he left the Council podium, CID director Gartner stepped up.   "We do think it would be a very good fit," she told Council members.  "My board is very supportive of moving forward with this project."   
 
In a social media strategy described as "He Tweets, She Tweets," Mr. Sessions and Ms. Gartner have also taken to blogs, Twitter, and Facebook as EEZ proponents.   They ban or block disagreeable constituents, and argue that while " misinformation" and "confusion" grips the city, they have the "facts."  
 
After a radio show caller last month accused Mr. Sessions of "overstepping," CPS Superintendent Chris Belcher said Mr. Sessions had been acting on his own. 
 
Also prompting scrutiny:  the public, often over-the-top nature of the couple's relationship, characterized by critics as inappropriately cavalier in the face of public angst over serious issues.  
 
Photos have shown them mugging for the camera or smooching on cue alongside heated arguments over the social, historical, and economic gravity of the Blight Decree.   In one shot, Ms. Gartner is kissing Mr. Sessions, seen wearing a pom-pom adorned lampshade or hat.   Opponents of the EEZ proposal scrawled the word "Blighted" across another photo of the pair grinning at a local trade show.   They frequently appear with other "power couples." 
 
"Jon and Carrie are carrying on an in-your-face dalliance that reflects a lack of decorum and judgment," one observer close to the situation told the Columbia Heart Beat.   "The School Board has tax measures on the ballot, and they both represent high-profile organizations with significant roles in the blight issue." 

Ms. Gartner sees the situation differently.  "My personal relationship with another EEZ board member cannot possibly to cause me to vote in any manner which would result in a personal gain of any kind to me or to the other board member," she said.   "If your accusation had merit, then no husband and wife could serve together on a city board, and there is no city prohibition to that effect." 
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