City Council retreat — worth the money?

One of the issues that bounced around the national media a couple of months ago was public anger over governmental bodies and businesses receiving public money taking lavish retreats in the midst of a recession.

The Columbia City Council’s retreat took them to The Lodge of the Four Seasons at the Lake of the Ozarks, a pretty swanky place. There’s a huge fireplace in the lobby, an indoor stream surrounded by vegetation running through one side of the resort and a few restaurants, not to mention a pretty darn good view of the lake from “the Lookout Room” where the Council’s meetings were held.

The Missourian could only afford to put me and fellow reporter, Ben Hansen, up for one night. We stayed at the Tomahawk Inn down the road on Thursday night. They have cable.

During a discussion I had with Third Ward City Councilman Karl Skala Wednesday night at the Smart Growth Coalition meeting, he informed me that he had mentioned to City Manager Bill Watkins a while back that maybe the city should look into holding the retreat somewhere a little more modest.

But Watkins told him that he got around to making the reservations too late, thus the Four Seasons, where the Council has had past retreats, remained the spot.

A reporter friend of mine from Joplin was chatting with me about how much he dislikes these sorts of things, especially if it is billed as a public meeting. It is a public meeting, but one held conveniently away from the public. Some citizens do manage to show up. Central Missouri Development Council Executive Director Don Stamper was there for most of the proceedings, chatting with the city staff in the back.

But maybe staying at a nice resort away from home maximizes the work people can get done. I know if I knew I had to sit at City Hall for two days of meetings, getting out of bed in the morning would have been a little harder. Knowing it’s a special occasion increases that excitement factor, and I was able to sit through 14 hours of presentations and discussions on Friday.

There is a lot that gets done. About 3 hours of discussion Thursday night, meetings from 8 a.m. to 10 p.m. Friday, and more meetings until noon on Saturday. No official decisions are made, but the Council is educated about the most pressing problems in the various city departments and gives some general direction to the staff.

Watkins sounded pleased with the retreat when he led a wrap-up discussion on Saturday morning.

“Frankly, I didn’t think were going to walk out of here with a balanced budget,” he said. “But I think we got some pretty good broad directions.”

Even so, he asked the Council to give their assessment of the retreat, both this one specifically and as a concept. He wanted to know whether they thought it was worth it.

Fourth Ward Councilman Jerry Wade said he saw the retreat as essential. “It’s the only time you get all the pieces together in the upcoming year,” he said.

Fifth Ward Councilwoman Laura Nauser said she thought the retreats had progressively gotten better and having all the presentations available electronically helps quite a bit.

Watkins asked for suggestions on improvement. He offered his idea to bid out the retreat in order to find the best deal.

The Council tossed around the idea of focusing on particular issues rather than getting reports from almost every department.

Mayor Darwin Hindman, though, reminded them it’s important that as much as possible is addressed because Watkins and the department heads need to know what direction the Council wants them to go.

If nothing else, it’s an incredibly informative event that most likely teaches the Council and other department heads about all the issues. I know I learned quite a bit. I just wish I had had time to hit the pool.

Here’s what we were doing instead:


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