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TRAPP-ED: Did Second Ward Councilman's conflict of interest lead him to support Blight?

Can Mike Trapp fairly preside over an unusual City Hall department?

COLUMBIA, 6/14/12 (Analysis) -- The strange corporate-City Hall partnership that is Regional Economic Development, Inc. (REDI) has again sparked conflict of interest concerns, this time over newly-elected 2nd Ward Councilman Michael Trapp.
 
Mr. Trapp failed to disclose that REDI investors and REDI board members control his employer, Phoenix Programs, either during his recent campaign, or after he won the seat and voted to support REDI's most wide-reaching project ever, the Blight Decree/EEZ.
 
Mr. Trapp says he didn't know about the REDI-Phoenix connection.

But in a growing community facing highly-charged issues like blight, that excuse may not wash. Mr. Trapp also feels he is trapped: by the need to work in a small town where, some say, conflicts of interest are inevitable.
 
"Columbia has a long tradition of a citizen legislature, which implies either an individual is employed, or we cede our representation to dilettantes and the retired," Trapp told the Heart Beat. "I have been totally upfront about where I work and will not be called to vote on issues relating to Phoenix Programs."
 
But Mr. Trapp will be called upon -- repeatedly -- to vote on issues related to REDI, which gets half its funding from city taxpayers to lobby City Hall, mostly on behalf of development and construction interests.
 
That REDI investors appear in such large numbers on the Phoenix board is no accident, said Phoenix Programs executive director Deborah Beste.
 
"The composition of the board of directors does have a business emphasis, and for a very clear purpose," she told the Heart Beat. With backgrounds in marketing, management, finance and so forth, board members recently helped Phoenix secure a new building, Beste explained. And they rarely interact with staffers.
 
"Members of the board do not hire staff, nor engage with staff members except in committee meetings and agency functions," Beste said. "Mike has had extremely limited exposure to the individuals on the board."
 
That may be true. But it presumes a standard of disclosure appropriate for the general public, not elected public officials.
 
As Columbia grows up, so to speak, more complex projects and inter-relationships are making higher transparency and disclosure standards inevitable. But non-disclosure is an old way that will die hard, as former Columbia City Councilman (1981-86) and retired non-profit manager Al Tacker indicated in a recent email.

"Your attack on Michael Trapp's transparency is absurd," Tacker told the Heart Beat. "As someone who has worked for a non-profit board as well as having served on some, I find it highly unlikely that a non-administrative staff member in a non-profit would even know who all the Board members were, much less be aware of their investment interests."
 
But if that non-profit staff member runs for City Council or some other high office, then what? Deeper knowledge of his or her employer remains as unimportant as it was before?
 
Tacker's experience also reflects the past. It doesn't look to a future that must address conflicts that spawn crises, from the 2008 financial meltdown to scandals that rip across the Mizzou complex with frightening frequency. In the 30 years since Tacker served on the City Council, power has become more concentrated, into fewer hands.
 
And conflicts of interest have exploded.
 
As for Mr. Trapp, "I can promise you there has been no discussion between him and members of the board of directors of Phoenix Programs," Beste told the Heart Beat. "Likewise, no discussion of REDI or EEZ has taken place at Phoenix Programs board meetings."
 
That may be true. But it's cold comfort to a community with a Council member for whom, despite promises and good intentions, it is that much harder to say "no" to well-funded, well-lobbied special interests.

PART ONE

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