Mayor Jay Knudtson prepares to end eight-year tenure

Monday, April 5, 2010
Jay Knudtson is sworn in as Cape Girardeau's mayor on April 5, 2002 at the city hall, replacing Al Spradling III, who reached his term limit. Knudtson defeated retired school principal Melvin Gateley with 60 percent of the votes.
FRED LYNCH
flynch@semissourian.com

EDITOR'S NOTE: The name of the Transportation Trust Fund road tax has been corrected.

A little more than a year before freshly elected Mayor Jay Knudtson and three new city council members took office in 2002, a master plan for public facilities presented a daunting list of needs.

A new fire station. A new police station. A new public works building. A water park. A new golf course clubhouse.

At the same time, the city was battling with the late businessman Jim Drury over the use of tax money to support construction of the Southeast Missouri State University River Campus.

As they look back, Knudtson, Ward 2 Councilman Charlie Herbst and Ward 6 Councilwoman Marcia Ritter can say most items on the needs list, except for a new police station, have been completed. The water park is being built and renovations, not new construction, took place at the golf course. The fourth council member from 2002, Evelyn Boardman, did not seek re-election in 2006.

Cape Girardeau Mayor Jay Knudtson, left, demonstrates with Dr. Ken Dobbins, president of Southeast Missouri State University, that the city and university are dancing together with the completion of the River Campus, during the Oct. 21, 2007, dedication ceremony. (Fred Lynch)

And within 20 months of taking office, Knudtson stood side by side with Drury to announce a settlement of his differences with the city, ending a long-running legal battle and appeasing a harsh critic of city finances. A mass mailing by Drury in April 2003, days before a city tax election, helped sink the first attempt to win voter support for addressing the facilities needs.

By stepping in directly and meeting with Drury more than 40 times over 18 months, Knudtson personally negotiated the settlement. It helped set the tone for his tenure, a personal, hands-on approach to a job that, under the city charter, is given little more actual power than other council members.

"I am not ashamed to say I was absolutely committed and determined personally to reach an agreement," said Knudtson, a banker by trade.

Since the agreement was reached, Cape Girardeau voters have approved a tax for public safety to support police and fire services, a tax to pay for parks facilities and storm-water control and renewed the road tax known as the Transportation Trust Fund.

What worked with Drury, Knudtson said, was listening to his grievances, meeting reasonable demands and not backing down from the city's commitment to help build the River Campus.

"More importantly, the guns were laid down," Knudtson said. "I still have a $100 contribution check from Jim Drury to my re-election campaign. It is symbolic of where we were headed. As I sit here today and look over what has been done the last four years, I have to think long and hard to identify any real, major or organized opposition to anything we tried to do."

Knudtson, Herbst and Ritter will gather tonight at city hall for their last regular business meeting. On Friday, they will certify the results of Tuesday's election where their replacements will be selected and watch as the new officials are sworn in.

The achievement list of the last eight years doesn't end with facilities improvements. The city reviewed employee pay to make a more rational and competitive salary schedule. Commitments to economic development allowed the use of tax money to support construction of the Kohl's and Sears Grand stores as well as rehabilitation of the Town Plaza and establishment of the 500-plus jobs NARS call center.

A commitment to regional cooperation -- and recognition that Cape Girardeau needed room to grow to the north -- brought a successful agreement with Jackson, Cape Girardeau County and Southeast Missouri State University to build a new Interstate 55 interchange. At the same time, the city planned and has built LaSalle Avenue, connecting the new interchange to Route W.

Internally, the city overhauled its zoning code, completed an updated Comprehensive Plan and developed the DREAM Initiative Master Plan. Those plans are being cited by mayoral candidates Harry Rediger and Matt Hopkins as their guides for upcoming years.

But Rediger and Hopkins said their leadership styles will differ from Knudtson. Instead of taking personal charge of negotiations -- the most recent example is Knudtson's napkin deal with Canadian financier Ronald Strauss to settle the thorny issue of Commander Premier's long-overdue rent at Cape Girardeau Regional Airport. That deal has yet to bear fruit and Commander's fate will be decided by the new council.

"I was very hands-on with some things I thought were important to the future growth and development of this city," Hopkins said of his eight years on the council. "But once official negotiations began, the staff takes over and the council as a group approves those things."

And Rediger said that while he, too, intends to be personally involved in business development negotiations, it will be as part of a team.

"It isn't as an individual negotiator," he said. "It is as a team negotiator representing the city with and through the city manager and the staff."

Under Cape Girardeau's charter, the city manager is an appointed professional with authority over the operations of every city department. Knudtson, Herbst and Ritter have worked with three managers. Mike Miller was city manager when they took office. He was dismissed over leadership differences. Doug Leslie was elevated to the manager's job from the Public Works Department and held the post until he retired last year. Scott Meyer now holds the job.

For many of the achievements regarding city facilities, Leslie said a major part of the success is because of a smoothly functioning city government. "Those improvements and plans span changes in the council over time," he said. "That speaks well for the ability of the system of city government with needs identified years ago and the city has worked to carry them out."

Both Knudtson and Herbst credit strong staff work for making the successes of the last eight years possible. "I think this council has been able to allow the staff the freedom to run and do those things and think outside the box," Herbst said. "The council's job is to make sure all those resources are there for the staff to do the job they need to do."

Knudtson and his penchant for personal involvement will be hard to follow, Herbst said. "Love him or hate him, we are going to miss Jay Knudtson and his art of engagement with people and his passion."

Looking back, Knudtson said his biggest disappointment is that the Commander Premier deal has not been completed. But he said he would not change how it has been handled.

But overall, he said he is satisfied as he thinks about his term as mayor.

"When I took office, we had pressing issues, police and fire and very basic foundational issues," he said. "As I leave office, we are planning the ribbon cutting on a water park. It really demonstrates that you have taken care of the major issues and addressed the quality of life issues that are important to everybody."

rkeller@semissourian.com

388-3642

Pertinent address:

401 Independence St., Cape Girardeau, Mo.

Map of pertinent addresses

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