A majority of the City Council voted Wednesday night to table the city's contract with the Joplin Area Chamber of Commerce because of concerns about statements made by the chamber president that offended some residents.
Several council members said they believe it would be more appropriate to discuss the contract and city expectations of chamber work with the board rather than the board's employee, Toby Teeter.
The council has had a contract with the chamber for economic development work since 1983 and updated provisions in it in 2015. This year, the chamber asks for $195,000 for its services, which is $5,000 less than last year. Additionally, funding for the MoKan Partnership regional economic development arm of the chamber is sought at $52,000.
Teeter was at Wednesday night's meeting to detail the services that would be provided with the funds, and after he spoke, several council members made comments about their concerns. The meeting was another in a series of the sessions the council is conducting as it considers the fiscal 2021 budget.
Teeter came under public criticism on Monday by some residents who asked the council to pull its support of Teeter and the chamber because they felt he put Joplin in a bad light as a racist community with comments he made as part of a chamber campaign for diversity and racial justice. There also were complaints that the chamber unfairly excluded some local businesses or did not provide services they need.
On Wednesday, Councilman Gary Shaw told Teeter that "when dealing with people it is helpful to realize it is easier to take spoonfuls of change rather than truckloads. I think sometimes you are doing things and it would be helpful if you realize that some of the things you say are harmful and hurtful to some of our citizens."
Teeter responded, "I appreciate that, and I hear you."
Councilman Phil Stinnett said the contract is between the city and chamber: "It's not a contract with Toby Teeter per se."
He said he would feel more comfortable talking to representatives of the board about the contract. He said the contract did not have to be finalized Wednesday; a discussion could be scheduled with the board with a council vote later.
"Unfortunately, it seems like we have got into a situation where many of our citizens believe Mr. Teeter has not represented the city of Joplin properly," Stinnett said. "His (public) speaking or whatever he does out there has nothing to do with the contract. We have to be somewhat sensitive about feelings of Joplin residents. I wish the chairman of the board comes before this body and we have discussion as to how perhaps there can be some understanding so that we don't have citizens climbing our backs."
Some of those residents have made repeated derogatory comments about Teeter on social media before his open letter to the community on racial justice was published in June. They also displayed signs with insults of him and Mayor Ryan Stanley at an anti-masking protest in the summer. Cartoons that mocked them over the city's mask mandate also have been circulated on social media.
Mayor Ryan Stanley said that while be believes Teeter and his chamber team have made good efforts on economic development, particularly in a bid for a Tesla manufacturing plant, he too has concerns: "There have been things that Toby has said and things Toby has done that ruffled my feathers, not on what was said but in how it was said."
He said he gives Teeter an A- or B+ for his work.
"I think Toby is doing a fine job on economic development and the contract with the city, but I think there is plenty of room for improvement" on things he did not want to discuss publicly.
Councilman Doug Lawson said that when he was in the military it was said that a person "100 'attaboys' is wiped out by one" mistake.
The council voted 5-4 on a motion by Lawson and a second by Stinnett to table funding the chamber contract. Those who voted against the motion were Christina Williams, Diane Reid Adams, Keenan Cortez and Anthony Monteleone.
The council also reaffirmed a commitment to stay with a 9% across-the-board pay raise for all employees rather than providing raises only for police and fire.
City Manager Nick Edwards asked for a conversation after comments were made at the last discussion that police and fire employees were promised raises in exchange for election canvassing they did to rally support for Proposition B, the half-cent sales tax to fund the Police and Firemen's Pension Fund.
"It's important that we get it right and that we be comfortable with this decision," Edwards told the council. "We only have the ability to fix this one time."
He said he was trying to understand the "lingering issues from 2018 so we have a healthy environment."
Edwards said he has found that a large number of employees want the city to be successful and are invested in their jobs and want to do better.
"There are a few employees who operate out of self-interest and not in the spirit of service. When there are employees who operate out of self-interest, there is opportunity to criticize, undermine and not help elected officials make decisions," Edwards said.
He called on several department heads to speak, who talked about the value of rewarding all the employees because of their experience and dedication to seeing the city succeed.