The tyranny within
COLUMBIA, Mo 8/25/14 (Op Ed) -- If you've been paying attention to the Opus controversy since March, you've had the honor to witness a modern-day freedom fight with meaning and significance beyond the development firm's controversial downtown student apartment. 

On one side is a City Hall desperately in need of a power correction.   "Absolute power corrupts absolutely," says the adage, and decades of near absolute power have had a corrupting influence on Columbia city government. 

On the other side are thousands of committed citizens, among them three attorneys who -- in the brief span of five months -- have done something rarely seen these days.   

Without thought of compensation, Josh Oxenhandler, Jeremy Root, and Betty Wilson have gone back to the idealistic core of their professional lives to vanquish tyranny and restore the law.        

Columbia City Hall is one of the richest entities in Missouri, with over $1.2 billion in assets.   It enjoys a near-monopoly on utility services, from parking to trash hauling.   It has an enormous war chest -- $144 million in unencumbered cash -- with which it can do considerable mischief.   It has a mutual -- and mutually-corrupting -- back-scratching relationship with the area's power elite -- the dozen or so families who control both city and county.   

Far more dangerously, decades of one-person rule have concentrated tremendous power into the hands of that person -- the Columbia city manager.    Lacking the temperament of former managers like Ray Beck and Bill Watkins, Mike Matthes has emerged as something of a tyrant, using his office's highly-evolved procedural tactics to circumvent due process, city ordinance, the City Charter, and the will of The People whenever it suits. 

Known for his bulldog, take-no-prisoners style as a city administrator in Des Moines, Matthes has taken the reigns of City Hall with little empathy for the people he serves and even less apparent respect for the laws of their land.    The leader sets the organizational tone, and as Columbia's supreme leader, Mr. Matthes has set a tone of disdain, albeit with a chuckle.  
It doesn't help that four City Council members  -- Trapp, Nauser, Chadwick, and Mayor McDavid -- share his impatience with due process and his "leader knows best" irritation with members of the public.   With their support, Mr. Matthes personifies unchecked power. 

It is Columbia's good fortune to have attorneys who have not lost the core idealism that takes so many students to law school in the first place.   It's the same idealism that motivated Clarence Darrow and Thurgood Marshall; the same idealism we look for in landmark Supreme Court rulings; the same idealism popular culture has lionized time and again -- Perry Mason, Matlock, The Paper Chase, To Kill a Mockingbird. 

In marshalling the judiciary to check Matthes' executive powers, Root and Oxenhandler are doing exactly what America's Founders intended with three branches of government.    With name plaintiffs Wilson and Michael MacMann, a lawsuit they've filed asks questions that resonate everywhere. 

Do we value documents like the Constitution -- and City Charter -- or are they just so many words?

Do our leaders serve the 99% -- or the 1%?

Do our voices matter?   Does it matter when thousands of people sign a petition, or hundreds of people write and call lawmakers and testify before legislators?

What does it mean when our leaders deceive us?  What does it say about our community, our way of life, when lying becomes a norm of governance?

And if we allow our voices to go unheeded, at what point do our leaders become tyrants? 

-- Mike Martin