Facing the toughest of problems with the smallest of resources
COLUMBIA, Mo 4/29/14 (Analysis) -- It's a sad fact of Columbia governance that city leaders routinely shuttle politically-hot but priority-not topics onto unpaid citizen volunteers, while high-priced consultants do the priority, mostly land-use policy work. 

Such is the case with the Mayor's Task Force on Community Violence, formed last August to much fanfare but struggling with the same-old, same-old problems virtually every citizen commission faces:  lack of real, honest-to-goodness commitment from where it counts the most -- from top community leaders; lack of real power; and lack of a budget. 

Especially trying for this task force is the problem they've been brought together to resolve:  crime, perhaps the most intractable problem of all.  

Dutifully meeting on a regular schedule -- 17 times since August -- the thirteen task force members represent a broad cross-section of Columbia, racially, economically, socially, and even spiritually.  They've tackled their charge with the well-organized approach you'd expect from a boardroom.   They formed committeesperformed surveys; examined various pieces of the Columbia puzzle, from the school district to the police department.  

What the group has been unable to muster, however, is significant commitment from the top brass, i.e. the leaders who can bring their plans and ideas to fruition.   School superintendent Chris Belcher did not attend the Columbia Public Schools-task force meeting.   To my knowledge, neither city manager Mike Matthes nor Mayor Bob McDavid attend meetings.  Police chief Ken Burton has addressed the group at least once

The group's frustrations are often evident.  "We basically got no new ideas, very little of realistically what is occurring in the schools," Task Force member Dave Thomas said after the Columbia Public Schools meeting.  

Task Force members also questioned the results of a youth survey they commissioned that seemed to miss a major area of interest:  racial disparities in police perception.   But the Task Force, "which does not receive any city funding, cannot afford a more comprehensive survey and needs to 'take it for what it is,'" said co-chair Laura Nauser, the 5th Ward City Councilwoman.   

The group has made progress, but to the general public, it appears limited.   Group members seem to have a better individual understanding of crime, but how that translates into community-wide results remains to be seen. 

Group dynamics aside, contrast the anti-violence task force with the recently-dissolved TIF Commission, which met in City Council Chambers for a lengthy presentation by deputy city manager Tony St. Romaine.  Contrast the task force with REDI (Regional Economic Development), which has a roughly $500,000 city-sponsored budget.   Contrast it with the downtown CID; the Sasaki Plan; the Charrette; even Visioning:  land-use organizations all, led by city-paid consultants or salaried "executive directors." 

Contrast the way Mr. Matthes can "move mountains" to get the "big" priorities through, like verbally scheduling special City Council meetings in violation of city law to approve student apartments.   

It's not hard to conclude City Hall is not all that committed to reducing crime.   Not when you compare the city's anti-crime efforts to its TIF, EEZ, and IBM efforts.  Not when you see how much funding and support for crime prevention -- e.g. Neighborhood Watch, Crime Free Housing, Neighborhood Response Team -- have bottomed out.   Not when you observe how City Hall has bent over backward to accommodate poor residential planning, which promises only to increase crime. 

So what's a well-intentioned citizen task force of unpaid volunteers to do?   Step One:  Insist on full and complete engagement from the top brass, including a reasonable budget.  

Anything less is a waste of time and talent. 
-- Mike Martin