Springfield City Council Members Abe McGull and Monica Horton at the Neighborhood Advisory Council’s City Council and Mayoral Candidate Forum on Tuesday March 7, 2023. (Photos by Jym Wilson)

Amid a crowded April election, with multiple open City Council seats and a mayoral contest, incumbent City Council members Monica Horton and Abe McGull, of Zones 1 and 2, respectively, face no challengers in their reelection bids.

McGull is seeking his second term after first being elected in 2019, and Horton is running for the first time to retain her seat on the City Council after being appointed in April 2022, following the vacancy left by former City Councilwoman Angela Romine in her ultimately unsuccessful state Senate campaign. 

With the exception of an unlikely write-in campaign against them, Horton and McGull are shoo-ins for reelection. Despite this, they can still be found attending candidate events, including a forum hosted by the Neighborhood Advisory Council (NAC) that took place on March 7 at the National Avenue Christian Church.

Horton and McGull both told the Springfield Daily Citizen that they don’t take their roles on Springfield City Council for granted and that it’s a privilege to serve on the City Council.

“I’m not running against an opponent, but I’m also running to do better than I did the last four years,” McGull said. “I’m willing to put forth the effort to convince my constituents that the choice they have is a good choice and not necessarily a default choice.”

“Voters should have every opportunity to know who’s going to be representing them on City Council from Zone 1,” Horton said. “With that being said, I can’t just kind of sit back and say, ‘I don’t have an opponent.’ I still need to be held accountable, people still need to know what my position is and I need to be accessible.”

Different paths led Horton and McGull to public service in north Springfield

Monica Horton, incumbent candidate for Zone 1 City Council seat, speaks at the Neighborhood Advisory Council’s City Council and Mayoral Candidate Forum on Tuesday March 7, 2023. (Photo by Jym Wilson)

Horton, a Kansas City native, moved to Springfield 10 years ago and got her Master of Public Administration from Missouri State University, after getting a bachelor’s in psychology at Tuskegee University and a master of music therapy from Florida State University. 

As a part of her graduate work at MSU, Horton examined the leading indicators of success at Springfield Public Schools through various educational measures, including the academic achievement gap among all female students, students with different racial backgrounds, and students that receive free and reduced lunches. 

With that information, Horton provided then-SPS Superintendent John Jungmann with policy recommendations to address district concerns.

Since moving to Springfield, Horton has been involved in a number of local organizations, including the Community Partnership of the Ozarks, Ujima Language and Literacy and the Greene County Senior Citizens Services Fund Board, as well as being a part of numerous panels, forums and focus groups. In addition, she also owns and operates Lenica Consulting Group.

City Council member and candidate Monica Horton, left, answers a question as council member/candidate Abe McGull and candidates Brandon Jenson and David Nokes wait their turns at the Neighborhood Advisory Council’s City Council and Mayoral Candidate Forum on Tuesday March 7, 2023. (Photo by Jym Wilson)

Through the various projects she has helped forward in her various roles, Horton says they were “gateway experiences to public service.”

McGull, a New Orleans native, studied at Louisiana State University and Southern University and A&M College in Baton Rouge before moving to Missouri to attend law school at the University of Missouri-Kansas City.

His early career began in broadcast journalism when he worked for CBS and ABC affiliates, and unexpectedly filmed the infamous murder of suspected child molester Jeff Doucet. 

After this incident, McGull decided to join the Navy, and served in the Reserves for 21 years. After law school, he worked in the Department of Justice as an Assistant U.S. Attorney also for 21 years, and also served as a city councilman and mayor for the Kansas City suburb Pleasant Valley, Mo.

McGull spent much of his time as a U.S. Attorney in Kansas City, but worked in the New Orleans office for a period of time as he wanted to spend more time with his mother in her later years. After her death, he sought to return to Kansas City, but, at the time, the closest DOJ vacancy was in Springfield.

Abe McGull, (incumbent) Zone 2 speaks at the Neighborhood Advisory Council’s City Council and Mayoral Candidate Forum on Tuesday March 7, 2023. (Photo by Jym Wilson)

“I said, ‘Okay, I’ll give it a try,’” he said.

After continuing to work for the DOJ in Springfield for another five years, McGull went into private practice and now owns and operates McGull Law Firm.

At the urging of local citizens, McGull successfully ran, also unopposed, for his first term as Zone 2 City Councilman in 2019.

McGull emphasizes communication, Horton encourages change amid development divisions

Springfield has been plagued with debates over development in recent years, between the citywide referendum on a development proposal in Galloway, to the ongoing battle in University Heights, to the potential conversion of a former church gym into an apartment complex in Doling Park.

After a resounding “no” on Springfield Question 1 in November 2022, Galloway Village Neighborhood Association President Melanie Bach launched her mayoral candidacy against incumbent Ken McClure “after experiencing first-hand the marginalization of our neighborhoods and the deep disconnect that currently exists between our city government and its citizens.”

When it comes to development and neighborhood preservation, Horton thinks that Springfield should stick to the plan it laid out for itself for the next 20 years, Forward SGF.

Galloway ballot issue Question 1 signs. (Photo by Shannon Cay Bowers)

Over the course of Forward SGF’s development, consultants interacted with more than 10,000 Springfield residents, getting input from a large chunk of the community, according to past reporting.

“We want for our processes to definitely have meaning,” Horton said. “We don’t want to just check boxes and say, ‘Hey, we did this, hey, we did that.’ We want to fully vet that development, look at all angles when it comes to neighbors.

“I’ve noticed that there’s certainly concerns about density, but also concerns about pedestrian safety, traffic, and just overall character of certain developments.”

However, Horton also thinks that there needs to be a mindset shift when it comes to expectations residents have for their neighborhood, and to look at the diversification of Springfield’s housing stock from the perspective of the built environment, and consider place-based zoning, rather than use-based zoning where appropriate.

Place-based zoning, often referred to as form-based zoning, places more emphasis on quality than simply land use.

The final parts of the white house on National are torn down on the morning of Oct. 4, 2022. (Photo by Jym Wilson)

“You might have people that are from different socioeconomic statuses from you,” she said. “You might have people who have different values, they have different lifestyles, they see the world differently. … Change is coming, and change is hard, but change is good.”

At the NAC candidate forum, Horton doubled down on her points that, with a place-based approach, Springfield’s neighborhoods may become less homogenous.

At the forum and in an interview with the Daily Citizen, McGull emphasized communication as key to preventing and addressing development debacles. He said that while “we all favor that developer or that person to make money,” we need to consider if a development is suitable for a particular neighborhood.

He wants to see early dialogue between developers and neighborhood associations and residents, with the city acting as a neutral party. However, aside from the leverage given to the city in Forward SGF, McGull said that the city is limited in what it can do when a developer is wanting to invest in property they own. 

“We can’t do it … for reasons that wouldn’t necessarily pass constitutional muster,” he said.

McGull said that developers and residents are equally entitled to “realizing their dream,” but a balance can be struck through “responsible, smart, collaborative and communicative dialogue.”

“I don’t want the city to be the place where dreams come to die,” he said.

Candidates see community policing as necessary to improve public safety in Springfield

Crime and public safety continues to be a top concern for Springfield residents and City Council candidates as the Springfield Police Department grapples with the same labor shortages that have impacted just about every other industry.

SPD’s annual report revealed a mixed bag of 2022 crime data, with ultimately fewer violent crimes and property crimes, but rising gun violence.

McGull, while bullish on SPD’s personnel levels due to some recent gains in their ranks and in the police academy, said it’s still crucial to get the police department fully staffed. 

“We still have a ways to go, but we are making a dent in that,” he said.

McGull wants to see more collaboration between law enforcement, community leaders and non-governmental organizations in order to address public safety challenges, as well as having more officers on the street, community-policing.

P.A.R. officers give a presentation to a group of kids from Seventh-day Adventist Junior Academy. (Photo by Shannon Cay)

“Sometimes you do that one community, one neighborhood at a time to have positive results,” he said. “But those things, community policing is a success story. I’ve worked with it, and I’ve seen it work in other communities in this country.”

Horton also thinks community policing will play a vital role in improving public safety in Springfield, and specifically mentioned how important it is to have SPD representatives for neighborhood associations to bridge communication and give residents “peace of mind.”

She pointed to the success of the Bears, Badges and Kids Basketball program, a collaboration between Missouri State University and law enforcement, as an example of how community policing works in Springfield.

Horton is also concerned about death and serious injury that can come as a result of minors having access to firearms.

“Can we address the elephant in the room?” she asked. “The elephant in the room is the guns and the access to guns and, quite frankly, the type of laws that we have in Missouri surrounding the guns part of gun violence.”

At the candidate forum, Horton said that some of the decision-makers to address concerns around public safety have to be the people who are most affected by crime in order for solutions to be found.

Horton, McGull weigh in on Springfield’s housing challenges

Springfield’s neighborhoods are not only grappling with the concerns that come along with zone changes and development proposals, but their ability to ultimately house Springfield’s growing population.

That is, in part, why the City of Springfield hired Atlanta-based firm APD Urban Planning and Development to conduct a comprehensive, citywide housing study to gauge the needs of Springfield’s housing stock.

At the NAC forum, candidates were asked how they would address nuisance properties, whether they be businesses or residential, many of which are rental properties. 

Horton said that because of the many stakeholders invested in this issue, they should find a collaborative approach to a “problem-solving endeavor.” She specifically mentioned Greene County, and said that they have a role in helping find a comprehensive way to address this issue.

McGull acknowledged that nuisance properties were a challenge for the story, and suggested that speeding up the hearing process could improve the situation.

“What we have right now is not working,” he said. “So we need to streamline that process.”

Other concerns around housing include the number of vacant properties, whether or not there is enough housing available, and housing conditions across Springfield.

McGull, again, emphasized the need to have an open and ongoing dialogue to address housing issues.

Houses along Washington Avenue across from the former Boyd Elementary School. (Photo by Jym Wilson)

“We like to think that the most thoughtful decisions can be made at a [City] Council meeting,” McGull said. “I don’t agree with that. I think that there should be an ongoing dialogue, ongoing engagements to address housing.”

He thinks that the city should establish issue-specific committees with community members and experts to address housing problems, and through this, the city is not simply being “reactionary to problems,” but they’re able to “become a visionary for solving problems.”

McGull is supportive of finding programs that might, for example, help someone in the police or fire academies to put a down payment on a home, and thinks that the revitalization efforts of the Restore SGF housing program should be expanded to other parts of the city (their current focus is primarily on the north side).

McGull said he would also “think hard” about working to legislate short-term rental properties, which he said can “deteriorate the neighborhoods themselves.”

Horton expressed her support for the city being able to establish a land bank, which would parcel up property for future development for whoever has “the greatest vested interest,” which, in her opinion, is the neighborhood associations, rather than the city simply selling it to the highest bidder.

While it is yet to hit Governor Mike Parson’s desk, House Bill 587, authored by Rep. Bill Owen, who represents northern Greene County (District 131), is circulating through the Missouri House of Representatives. The legislation would authorize certain municipalities to establish a land bank agency.

She also suggested the establishment of a new housing trust fund, which she said could be funded, in part, through Springfield’s hotel/motel tax, that could serve a variety of different purposes, possibly including assistance with down payments and closing costs, and incentives for those willing to invest in blighted areas.

Horton praised the efforts of the Drew Lewis Foundation in their Blue House Project homeownership program, which helps qualified participants obtain residential stability.

Northside incumbents share additional concerns to be addressed, whether in their next term or years down the road

Among her other priorities, Horton wants to put focus on preserving certain properties that may or may not be in historic districts in Springfield, and specifically pointed out that she would support a preservation plan for Silver Springs Park, which is a part of the African-American Heritage Trail.

Horton also wants to put more emphasis on addressing homelessness in the community, and wants to see more non-congregate shelters available in Springfield. She also thinks there should be more tax dollars “in the game,” because the city relies heavily on federal funds to assist people who deal with housing instability.

McGull said that, as the Springfield area continues to grow and becomes more of a “modern city,” will inevitably have to expand the role of City Council in the years ahead.

“It is unrealistic to think that this city, with this growth that it is having and being the central hub for surrounding communities, can continue to function with a volunteer [City] Council,” he said. “…That’s going to have to be addressed sometime down the road. Maybe not in this election cycle or the next, but, at some point, you’re going to have a full-time mayor, maybe a part-time council. But I think that day is coming soon for this city because there’s so much progress, so many issues that have to be addressed.”

While competition-less in this election, Horton and McGull are still sharing their views on how Springfield might address the many and diverse challenges it faces, and getting to know their future fellow council members as they vie for a spot on the nine-member council that will, nonetheless, be in for a shake-up on election day.

The deadline to register to vote has passed, and Horton and McGull will be found on the ballot, alongside eight other City Council candidates in four contested races, on April 4.

(Photo by Shannon Cay Bowers)

Jack McGee

Jack McGee is the business and economic development reporter at the Springfield Daily Citizen. He previously covered politics and elections for the Citizen. Before that, he worked at documentary film company Carbon Trace Productions and Missouri State University’s student-led newspaper, The Standard. He’s an MSU graduate with a Bachelor of Science degree in journalism and a minor political science. Reach him at jmcgee@sgfcitizen.org or (417) 719-5129. More by Jack McGee