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TRAPP-ED: Employed by REDI investors, Councilman fails transparency test

A conflict of interest with major ramifications
 
COLUMBIA, 6/7/12 (Analysis) -- In one of the more serious transparency lapses in recent Columbia history, newly-elected 2nd Ward City Councilman Michael Trapp  repeatedly failed to disclose that REDI investors and two REDI board members control his employer of five years, Phoenix Programs.
 
After equivocating about it in the months leading up to the April election, Mr. Trapp came out in support of REDI's most far-reaching project ever, the controversial Enhanced Enterprise Zone (EEZ) that blighted over 60% of the city.

Last month, he voted to establish a so-called "Blight Board" to oversee the EEZ.

Eighty percent -- 4 of 5 -- Phoenix board members are REDI investors, two of whom -- Veterans United Home Loans (formerly VA Mortgage) and State Farm Insurance -- are also REDI board members.   A non-profit substance abuse recovery center, Phoenix has no substance abuse counselors on its board of directors.
 
Short for Regional Economic Development, Inc., REDI is a privately-funded business lobby that also operates as an official City Hall department with nearly $500,000 in annual public support.  The group mainly lobbies for the construction and development industry, and has sustained several recent conflict of interest scandals involving its chairman, flooring contractor Dave Griggs.
 
Mr. Trapp told the Heart Beat he didn't know who controlled his employer and because he is "not directly supervised by the board" and has only "incidental contact" with board members, his failure to disclose is "immaterial."
 
"It's not a work issue and it's unfortunate you are trying to make it one," Mr. Trapp said.
 
But voters looking for transparent representation may think otherwise. The public does not know what goes on behind the scenes at Phoenix Programs, from comments in emails to water cooler chat, or how internal pressures, no matter how subtle, might affect Mr. Trapp's vote.
 
Sources close to Mr. Trapp's campaign say advisers told him not to openly support the EEZ for fear of losing votes.  "He was advised to be as non-controversial about it as possible during the election," a source told the Columbia Heart Beat.
 
If that's true, it's no wonder. The Blight Board recently introduced a new map that once again legally blights most of Columbia.
 
When 80% of the people effectively signing his paychecks are also investors in the Blight Decree/EEZ's main lobbyist, it's hard -- if not impossible -- to expect that Mr. Trapp's votes on the issue will always be unbiased.
 
With calls growing to separate REDI from City Hall, it's more than likely Mr. Trapp will be called upon to vote up or down on issues that further pit the lobbying group directly against voters.
 

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