By JAN LARSON McLAUGHLIN
BG Independent News
As the lone Republican on Bowling Green City Council, Bob McOmber could have easily been a pariah, with his comments getting the cold shoulder from his Democratic counterparts.
But those attending City Council meetings quickly learn that when McOmber speaks, the heads on council turn his way. Whether talking about budgets or garbage bins, his words are measured and methodical.
As he retires at the end of the month after 12 years on City Council, he leaves a legacy steeped in compromise, with no tolerance for political grandstanding or sitting on the fence.
When the city faced a $625,000 deficit in its 2017 general fund, McOmber led the way out of the budget hole. Council had several options to plug the hole, including the trash collection fee which was ultimately selected as the best option.
“I feel good about how that was handled,” McOmber said. “I purposely wanted it to be a group decision – a consensus among all of us. It could have been a very acrimonious decision. But it was a solid decision – rationally based.”
When the city was working to pass two anti-discrimination ordinances in the 2010 election, the organizers turned to an unlikely ally. The ordinances faced tough opposition, so the week before the election, McOmber was asked to record a robo-call in support of the ordinances. Surprised by the request, he asked – why him?
“Nobody thinks you’re a left wing nutcase,” McOmber was told. “I agreed to do it.”
Both ordinances passed narrowly. And though they were highly controversial at the time, “those ordinances have worked out fine,” he said. As an attorney, McOmber had a background in employment discrimination. “I believe employment ought to be based on somebody’s ability to do the job.”
When the city was deeply divided over zoning changes that would allow the Market Street development in the downtown, McOmber sided with those wanting to create a new zoning classification.
“That was a big controversy,” he said. “I think time has shown that was a good thing to do. But that was a delicate issue.”
And this year, when the city faced a proposed charter amendment put on the ballot by citizens opposed to pipelines, McOmber left no doubt where he stood.
“I realized if I didn’t say something, nobody else was going to.”
At the end of a council meeting, McOmber read a statement saying the city charter was no place to put such an amendment. “It’s not the right vehicle to do what they wanted to do.”
McOmber had decided long ago that the public deserved to know where he stood on issues. “I had told myself, if I get on city council, I was not going to be a fence sitter.”
Unlike some politicians, McOmber is not afraid of offending people.
“I never worried about not being popular,” he said. “If it’s something important to the city, people who put themselves out there as a city leader need to do a little leading.”
That’s not to say that McOmber wasn’t willing to budge on issues. During the lengthy discussions on trash bin placements last year, McOmber worked toward a consensus.
“We talked about this for months,” with council split on the issue until a compromise was suggested. “I got everyone to agree with that compromise,” he said. “It’s important to present a unified front to the public.”
Compromise is not a dirty word, but a route to success.
“Compromises are how things get done,” he said. “I was always in the minority party on council. I had to compromise more than anyone else.”
As a member of the minority, McOmber was never selected as an officer by the 20 different members he served with on council. “It hurts a little bit that I never got to be an officer in my 12 years on council,” he said.
However, the lack of title shouldn’t be seen as a lack of respect.
“That doesn’t mean you can’t be a leader,” he said. That was especially true when fiscal or legal issues arose. “I would see the other six people turn their heads and look at me.”
“I believe in the notion that when you live in a smaller community, everybody should do something that serves more than just themselves,” McOmber said. And he takes the responsibility seriously. He showed up for a council meeting in 2011 just four days after having a major heart attack. “My feeling was, you can’t do the job unless you’re there,” he said.
One of those people looking to McOmber for guidance over the years has been council president Mike Aspacher.
“Bob and the level of experience he brings to council will be missed very much,” Aspacher said.
The two men served on the Bowling Green Board of Education for seven years together, prior to both being elected to council. “In all that time, I have been so impressed with Bob’s grasp of issues.”
When dealing with complicated financial structures, McOmber is able to find common sense approaches – not steered by politics, Aspacher said.
“I’ve never seen a single bit of partisanship from Bob,” he said. “Even though we all run as partisan candidates, he makes decisions based on what is best for citizens of Bowling Green.”
For years, council member Sandy Rowland has sat next to McOmber during council meetings. She has come to count on his fiscal wisdom and his historical perspective.
“He’s like an encyclopedia of where we’ve been and what will benefit us,” she said.
Rowland pointed to McOmber’s handling of a recent budget meeting. “He cut through a lot of stats. I will miss him for that. We will probably refer to the good ole days” when McOmber was on council.
But Rowland also noted that the lone Republican was not afraid to go against the grain. “If he disagrees, he’s going to say it.”
Mayor Dick Edwards will also miss McOmber’s well-reasoned counsel.
“He always thinks things through,” Edwards said. “He doesn’t do knee-jerks. He sees the big picture. I love his analytical mind.”
Council will miss that perspective, the mayor added.
“All members of council look to Bob,” especially on items like the city budget. “They know he’s read it and analyzed it.”
Though McOmber will no longer have to worry about the budget, he is still concerned about the state continuing to chip away at local government funds. He easily rattled off the amounts already cut by the state. “I think it will continue to be a challenge going forward.”
“I always live in fear of lame duck sessions of legislation,” when some unvetted ideas make more progress than they should. “A lot of fairly crazy stuff gets talked about.”
When asked if he has considered a run for mayor, McOmber replied, “Not a snowball’s chance.”
Becky, his wife of 43 years, has given up enough during his 12 years on council.
“My wife likes to be a behind the scenes person,” he said. “It made her life a little more difficult also.”
There was the campaigning, some sleepless nights, and her role as sounding board.
“She was a very good sounding board. What is a good idea and what should never see the light of day,” he said. “She’ll be relieved I’m not doing this any longer.”