Columbia City Council anticipates election

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Tuesday’s municipal election was on the minds of the Columbia City Council as aldermen speculated Monday night about the return of tumultuous city business common over a decade ago. 

During the aldermanic comments portion of the meeting, Ward II Alderman Mark Roessler alluded to a time in the mid-2000s when city council meetings were marked by animosity while a “good ol’ boys system” was seemingly in place.

Roessler began by saying the recent events, such as the resignation of former Columbia Mayor Kevin Hutchinson, criticism of the city’s response to businesses during the COVID-19 pandemic as well as discussion of possible “conflicts of interest” regarding the upcoming election reminded him of a time when city government was not handled as professionally as he believes it has been in the past decade.

He referred to the time when he began as alderman 12 years ago “turmoil that I don’t want to go through again,” adding it “is something we need to maybe be prepared for in the next few weeks.” 

Roessler continued by saying “some of the political rhetoric… sounds very reminiscent of what happened here many years ago.”  

Roessler remarked that the system established in Columbia’s government with department heads and city employees handling operations and elected officials only becoming involved “as needed” has done well to alleviate some of the problems the city faced 15 years ago.

The city “lost personnel” because of micromanagement of elected officials, Roessler recalled.

“We lost good people because they were involving themselves, and sometimes it was for personal reasons as opposed to the best interest of this city, and I don’t want to see that happen again,” he said

Roessler cited Columbia Director of Community Development Scott Dunakey, Building Inspector Justin Osterhage and City Engineer Chris Smith as examples of impeccable records of accurately applying city regulations even when met with criticism.

“I really hope someone doesn’t try to get involved (in city business) and try to influence or exercise discretion with how we’re going to apply those (city) codes and those variances and those zonings because that’s where we got into the problem years ago,” Roessler said.

Ward IV Alderman Mary Ellen Niemietz “strongly agreed” with Roessler, saying that in her time as an elected official, the city council has worked to make Columbia a “professional government, and that’s why we have good staff members.”

Niemietz also said city government “isn’t about friends and family and favors, and I think that’s what most of us here have worked for,” adding that Columbia should reflect professionalism in government especially since the city is “not a small municipality anymore.”

Niemietz concluded her comments by saying “we’ve been through tough times. I don’t want to go through them again.”

Ward II Alderman Kevin Martens also agreed with Roessler and Niemietz, adding he was upset after recent comments during the campaign that the city “hasn’t done a darned thing about COVID-19.”

“We busted our butts in this council, and the (city employees) have busted theirs,” Martens said. “I don’t take kindly to that,” he continued, calling the comments “a disgrace” and closing by saying “if that’s how you’re going to treat employees, we don’t need that.”

The issue of a potential conflict of interest in holding the offices of Monroe County coroner and Columbia mayor were discussed next, with attorney John Long acting as city attorney in place of Terry Bruckert during Monday night’s meeting. 

Long, a partner in a law firm with Bruckert, offered his opinion that if Bob Hill – who intends to keep his position as county coroner if elected mayor – wins on April 6, he would automatically forfeit his position as county coroner. He cited legal precedence in which a township supervisor and county executive pose an “incompatibility of office.”

Click here to read a recent Republic-Times article on the issue.

Long, who was not as familiar with the particulars of the situation as Bruckert, advised the council that he would investigate a specific aspect of the matter and report back later in the meeting. When he returned, Long stated that he would say with “at least 75 percent certainty” that a court would find an incompatibility of office if asked to rule on the matter, pointing out that any taxpayer in the city could request that such an investigation take place.

Long also noted two instances that could lead to conflict of interest are when Columbia and Monroe County enter into a contract that Hill “can’t be on both sides” of that contract and also that the coroner acts as sheriff if the sheriff’s department is “vacant,” which would result in him acting as a county executive while at the same time being a representative of the city – something Long believes to be “completely incompatible.”

Long noted the most recent election would be the office Hill would have, and that a potential election could not be “undone.” 

Long was unsure if Hill, if elected, could rescind his mayorship before being sworn in if it was found he would have to vacate his position as coroner.

“The problem doesn’t go away just because the person involved wants to hold both offices. That doesn’t remove the problem or potential for lawsuits. It just doesn’t,” Long said.

The city council concluded the matter simply by saying, “We’ll see what happens.”

Hill’s challenger for Columbia mayor is current city clerk Wes Hoeffken. For profiles of both candidates, click here.

The polls are open from 6 a.m. to 7 p.m. Tuesday.

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