Columbia Mayor Kevin Hutchinson and challenger Brad Oberkfell squared off in a debate last Tuesday that was sponsored by Progress for Columbia and endorsed by the Columbia Chamber of Commerce.
Incumbent City Clerk Ron Colyer and challenger Shirley Bergmann each gave three-minute statements, while unopposed aldermen each spoke for one minute. Only Alderman Mary Ellen Niemietz’s challenger for her Ward 4 seat, Dan Voelkel, did not attend.
The evening remained civil even as the mayoral candidates went on the offensive. In his opening statement, Hutchinson, who has been mayor for eight years, predicted a unique race between the candidates.
“I served with my opponent and I do have some of his record here,” Hutchinson said. “There are extreme contrasts between the two of us.”
Oberkfell served as alderman for one term.
Hutchinson described a history of Oberkfell “voting against commercial growth” to the point of costing the city hundreds of thousands of dollars fighting lawsuits from proposed developers as a result.
Oberkfell countered by announcing Columbia citizens are “fearful of speaking out due to intimidation and retaliation.” He called on all Columbia citizens to “re-engage and re-energize” with city government.
Hutchinson and Oberkfell were each asked the same four questions and given five minutes to respond. Their answers regarding economic development showcased their differences.
“I’d like to set the record straight,” Oberkfell said. “I’m not against development. I never have been.”
He acknowledged that economic development is important to help a community grow, and that it’s important to focus on bringing business into Columbia.
“Looking at the Maverick Technologies, looking at the Budnick Convertings of the world, I think it’s important to bring those types of jobs into town so that we can maintain the quality of life,” Oberkfell said, referring to two local businesses. “Business is important, residential growth is going to happen, businesses will come with the residential growth and vice versa,” he said.
Hutchinson also said economic growth is important, and that for the eight years he has been mayor, plus two he served as alderman, he has consistently voted for economic growth.
“My opponent, when he ran in the aldermanic election, said he is anti-TIF (tax increment financing), yet he praises Budnick and he praises Maverick Technologies. They wouldn’t be here without the TIF district. They wouldn’t be here without the incentives,” Hutchinson said.
The things that give Columbia residents a high standard of living and quality of life “are not cheap, and they are funded by our property tax dollars, so sometimes we have to give a little to get those property tax dollars in town,” he added.
Niemietz is seeking her fifth term as alderman, and is opposed by Voelkel.
“My philosophy has not changed since the first time I ran for office, but new challenges have arisen with the change in economy in 2008,” she said. “Balancing the budget is still my first and foremost priority, without eliminating the services that provide our quality of life in Columbia.”
She also emphasized the necessity for a balance between residential and commercial growth. “Sales tax, for me, is a very important tool and something that we need to increase.”
Colyer, a former educator and coach, and has lived in Columbia for 45 years. He touts setting consistent clerk’s office hours, and opening the clerk’s office on Saturday mornings among the accomplishments of his first term.
Bergmann, a native of Columbia, started her career in banking, and worked as a telecommunicator at the Columbia Police Department for 16 years.
“I have no personal agenda going in (to the city clerk’s office),” she said. “I just want to serve the people of Columbia.”
If elected, she vowed that state statutes and city ordinances will be followed, using as an example the approval and release of executive session minutes every six months as required.
“I will not make any of my own decisions and rules.”
The election is Tuesday, April 9.