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Mayor’s Priorities Neglect Town’s Most Pressing Needs

This is our 30th year of publishing magazines in Columbia. For three decades, we’ve chronicled the good and bad times experienced as our small, sleepy college town has evolved into a tiny metropolis with all the perks — and all the troubles — of a much larger city. Through our magazines and events, we’ve done our best to make a good city look great while daring to lead some candid conversations about missed opportunities along the way.

I’ll get straight to the point: I’ve seen a lot of mayors come and go.

I should first state rather clearly that I like Columbia Mayor Barbara Buffaloe as a person. I first met her when she appeared as a regular guest on the daily radio show I co-hosted with Simon Rose for nearly eight years. Back then, she was the lone employee of the city of Columbia’s Office of Sustainability. It was her job to help us figure out what grade of plastics belonged in the city’s blue recycling bags. She also helped our listeners consider creative ways to repurpose their holiday gift wrap instead of sending it to the landfill. Sounds harmless enough, right?

Other than the unfortunate situation with her once donning a T-shirt that proclaimed “I’m The F**king Mayor,” Barbara Buffaloe has proven to be an altogether decent person. She is kind, compassionate and very smart.

Unfortunately, her priorities for leading this city are completely out of sync with its most pressing needs.

Though she didn’t create the crime problem, the solid waste catastrophe or the potentially crippling infrastructural issues, she’s doing very little to fix them. Some would argue that she’s made zero progress with any of these growing problems.

Let’s be honest, it’s a bad time to be involved in Columbia city government. You know it’s bad when those who would normally be our most ardent civic cheerleaders describe the state of Columbia city government as a “dumpster fire.”

Speaking of dumpsters, it seems very little is going as it should. From trash collection woes to unhappy firefighters to a failing utilities infrastructure, things in City Hall are a hot mess right now. But instead of leading, Mayor Buffaloe is traveling.

We’re currently understaffed by 40 police officers and that alone makes it less safe to live in Columbia. To add insult to injury, our local cops are mad that not one penny of the more than $25 million in American Rescue Plan (ARPA) dollars spent by the city went toward policing, in spite of the current crisis. A proactive mayor would step forward and attempt to mitigate these problems. Instead, Mayor Buffaloe is traveling.

It doesn’t matter if our city has a solid plan for dealing with the world’s climate crisis if citizens feel unsafe and underserved. In spite of all that, a quick check of her travel calendar has her spending a large portion of the last three months at climate conferences in Dubai and China. She also joined the Chamber of Commerce on a recent trip to Madison, Wisconsin, shortly after attending the Bloomberg Harvard City Leadership Initiative in New York City.

To her credit, Mayor Buffaloe is trailblazing a path forward in the areas of sustainability and climate action for our city. You can see the proof of that in the unsightly “No Mow Zones” (aka pollinator habitat) along our city’s most heavily traveled thoroughfares. You will also be pleased to know that they no longer use plastic utensils in the city manager’s office. And, in case you haven’t noticed, our near-empty city buses are now running on electricity instead of those nasty fossil fuels that power the electric plants that eventually provide electric power for those same buses. I know it’s not perfect but it is apparently, what some would call progress.

Need more proof? The city’s Office of Sustainability where Buffaloe was once the sole employee now has a staff of six employees and an annual operating budget of more than $600,000. Progress, indeed.

Given our mayor’s strong interest in environmental and climate issues, it’s odd to me that the city of Columbia has recently become the target of a class action lawsuit over its failure to operate even the most basic recycling service for its citizens. I’m curious if the mayor mentions Columbia’s recycling woes in her speeches to foreign audiences. By all accounts, our nonexistent recycling system is an epic failure on the part of city leadership.

I’m willing to keep an open mind about our mayor. One more crisis might be all it takes to get her attention and make her realize that there’s more to running our city than her quixotic attempts at saving the planet. The planet, no doubt, needs saved, but not at the cost of neglecting what was once a world-class city.

We can do better. Let’s do it.