October 6, 2013

Columbia council race: fresh face vs. experience

A north Columbia neighborhood leader is challenging a veteran City Council member in the sole at-large council race on the Nov. 5 ballot.

A north Columbia neighborhood leader is challenging a veteran City Council member in the sole at-large council race on the Nov. 5 ballot.

Electrical contractor Tommy Burkett is banking on a time-for-change theme as the key to ending Councilwoman Tameika Isaac Devine’s tenure of nearly 12 years as a city leader.

He hopes that disenchantment with City Hall decisions on finances, police leadership, treatment of the homeless, Bull Street development and other matters make her vulnerable, even though she hasn’t always supported the outcome of those issues.

But Burkett describes the match as an “uphill battle” to defeat Devine, known for staying in touch with neighborhood concerns.

Neither is running against Mayor Steve Benjamin even though both don’t always agree with him.

Benjamin has done “a halfway good job” as top city elected leader, Burkett says.

Recent decisions “highlighted” conflicts with Benjamin, but “I still consider him one of my very best friends,” Devine said.

The split is prominent in Benjamin’s drive to give the mayor more authority in overseeing the day-to-day operations of City Hall.

Devine doesn’t support the proposal that will be on a Dec. 3 ballot after a petition drive forced a referendum.

The step invites “cronyism” and lessens the chance of differing views having influence, she said. “The average citizen loses out.”

Burkett is undecided on the matter.

The race is one of three council matches on the ballot, but it’s the only one that will be decided by voters citywide.

Here’s a snapshot of the main themes Burkett and Devine are sounding as the nonpartisan race enters its final month:

Burkett wants to shake up City Hall, although he offers few specifics on how he would do that beyond “a dose of good common sense.”

He is upset at the prospect of a series of water and sewer rate hikes, saying that’s a sign of “not taking care of business” by keeping facilities up-to-date and diverting some revenue to other uses.

And he’s also concerned that meal tax awards allotted some events are wasteful.

His major focus will be on making sure police get resources to reduce crime, including letting some supervisors take vehicles home to allow quicker response to calls for help.

He also favors banning city leaders from going to crime scenes, an idea Devine and other council members rejected.

Burkett, 70, lives in the Hyatt Park-Keenan area. He is making his first bid for elected office but is known at City Hall as a neighborhood and business leader.

Devine has a package of big and small goals she want to accomplish if re-elected.

Her plans include enhancing city use of technology, increasing its environmental efforts, making it more attentive to small business needs and finding ways to help needy families avert homelessness.

It’s also time, she says, to take a fresh look at revitalizing areas along North Main Street, Millwood Avenue and Two Notch Road, after those projects were stalled by questions about their costs.

She’s apprehensive about what she sees as an increasing tendency among city leaders to rush approval of proposals such as Bull Street redevelopment, a project in which “we didn’t fully explore all the concerns.”

Her approach is that “building consensus is what makes things work.”

Devine, 40, is a lawyer specializing in real estate and probate. She lives in the Earlewood neighborhood.

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