Things were different at the Maryville Community Center than they were a month ago, when the City Council last met in an at-capacity room and spent more than an hour readdressing the city’s water issue — a source of renewed public outcry.
There were fewer armed police officers on hand to provide security and enforce Maryville’s mask mandate. There were fewer chairs this time, leaving space at the back of the Community Center’s second-floor meeting room for a standing room only crowd that never showed up. And there were fewer uninformed residents in attendance this time around, who in December flooded the meeting space with misinformation and rambling questions, pleading with the City Council to do something about the taste and odor issues consuming Maryville’s drinking water.
It sounds like a noble effort: A group of citizens, organizing via a grassroots Facebook group, taking their collective grievances directly to the City Council, demanding city officials to answer for their own inaction. What could be more Democratic?
The truth behind this effort, though, is more nuanced. More self-interested.
What the agendas and minutes from the last three years of City Council meetings will tell you — and what some, if not most, of the conservative Facebook group’s members aren’t capable of telling you themselves — is that the issue the group has latched onto as a talking point for the City Council’s inaction is a topic the Council been actively addressing since 2017 — a full term length for any given member of the Council.
The issue isn’t new, and it hasn’t been ignored. Maryville has spent $860,000 trying to address the water’s taste and odor ailments since 2017. The Maryville Forum has published more than a dozen stories examining the issue — all of which came before the Maryville and Nodaway County Resident Council Facebook page was created. And despite what the group’s mission statement promises, its members are not interested in solutions.
The latest City Council meeting proved something that was already apparent about the group, which has amassed more than 1,020 members as of this writing: Leaders in the group have weaponized the water issue as a dog whistle for conservatives fed up with the city’s mask mandate, using the energized platform to launch their own campaigns for City Council.
A handful of the group’s more active members showed up to the Council’s latest meeting, mainly to spread misinformation about COVID-19 and to again argue with City Council members about the merits of a mask ordinance that has been in place since July. Among them, of course, were Tim Jackson and John McBride — frequent posters in the Facebook group who have announced bids to run for two open City Council seats this April.
Jackson, the provoking owner of Title Town Bar and Grill who gained attention in July for posting a “No masks allowed” sign on the bar’s door, asked the Council in an ironically condescending tone why Nodaway County’s COVID-19 positivity rate was the deciding factor in Maryville’s status as Category 1: Extreme Risk — a designation applied by the Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services that keeps Maryville under its current emergency order. He was never going to be satisfied with the Council’s answer.
In an unnecessarily tense encounter with the Council — which didn’t vote and never intended to vote on extending the city’s mask ordinance, set to expire Jan. 31 — Jackson played his familiar, tired role of a dissenter for the sake of dissent.
He wore a camouflaged, cold-weather face covering that hid almost all of his head, except for his eyes, and at times, his nose. He continually cast doubt on the effectiveness of masks while presenting strawman arguments on why their use shouldn’t be mandated. And he twice complained about City Hall’s temporary closure, before falsely accusing the Council of upcharging residents who were forced to pay bills online due to the closure.
“It doesn’t make any sense to have the doors locked,” Jackson said, referring to City Hall, refusing to give a word to Councilwoman Rachael Martin, who attempted to interject. “I pay taxes in the city of Maryville — and I’m assuming everybody in this room does — I should be able to walk up, open the door and just walk in.”
“Is there a service that you need that you have not been able to get during the closure?” asked Martin, the former mayor who barely finished her question before Jackson interrupted again.
“Absolutely not,” Jackson said. “But that’s not the point.”
There never was a point. Jackson was repeating the same monologue he has since July. And now McBride and Mike Coffelt, another member of the group who attended the meeting, have joined in, along with 1,000 of their closest friends, reciting a synchronous, tired chorus of misinformation.
Last month it was the water issue, but the first meeting of 2021 served as the great reveal, the unmasking of the group’s only real reason for existing: they are upset about the mask mandate, and perhaps more critically, upset that they aren’t getting their way.
That became clear nearly 20 minutes into the Jan. 11 Council meeting, as McBride doubted the effectiveness of masks and pleaded with the Council’s five members to value his opinion as much as they value that of medical experts. Mask usage should be a choice, he said, over and over, through different anecdotes and scenarios that helped him paint the same misinformed portrait.
McBride lamented the citywide division the mask mandate has caused — even as his own campaign for City Council was launched as a product of that division. And as his lecture lingered on, Councilman Matt Johnson stepped in.
“Can I get back to your original question?” asked Johnson, a history instructor at Northwest who is serving out the final months of his first and only term on the City Council after declining to run again in April.
“Yes sir,” said McBride, who hopes to assume the vacant seat set to be left by Johnson this spring.
“What was it?” Johnson asked.
McBride stumbled before starting in again about his thoughts on the mask mandate, largely ignoring Johnson’s inquiry, not because McBride forgot the question he asked to start his monologue, but because he didn’t ask one. He had no real request of the City Council, no real substantive bone to pick.
He, like Jackson, made his voice heard at the meeting seemingly so he could hear it himself.