In this unwinnable world, City Hall mistrust is only a mirage

COLUMBIA, Mo 03/19/15 (Op Ed) --  Michael Trapp tried to do something to his 2nd Ward Columbia City Council opponent he's done to the public many times during City Council hearings.   

The incumbent Councilman tried to create an unwinnable situation during a public debate.  By calling him a "nice guy" Paul Love had "slurred him," 
Mr. Trapp told a crowded League of Women Voters (LWV) audience Tuesday night. 

"Paul uses my demeanor -- that I'm a nice guy, that I'm friendly  -- as a slur," Trapp explained.  

The comment must have seemed a real head scratcher to those who haven't heard Mr. Trapp before, explaining -- sometimes endlessly -- how in trying to do the right thing, the public had gone hopelessly wrong.

Mr. Love was the picture of sincerity at the LWV debate, merely noting that while he found the Councilman a nice person, he didn't much care for his representation.   To most people, that sounds like politeness. 
But if you thought being polite was a good thing, in Trapp's Unwinnable World, it's not. 

Mr. Trapp, meanwhile, was visibly frustrated.  The "slur" comment almost seemed an angry shot at an imperturbable foe.  He had tried to build several unwinnable scenarios, to make Love throw up his hands, mutter "I can never win with you" or "Every time I try to do the right thing, you say it's the wrong thing," and walk away. 

But Mr. Love wasn't biting.  

As he had at the Muleskinners debate, the challenger sat placidly, telling the audience what he didn't like about Mr. Trapp's representation -- e.g. his support for Blight; his "mishandling" of the "overly expensive" 911 center -- and what Mr. Love would do differently -- e.g. focus on youth programs to deter future crime rather than "Ban the Box", Mr. Trapp's signature crime-fighting legislation.

"I calls it as I sees it," Love explained.  "That's what you'll get if you elect me." 

Between comments about "mathematical metrics" and "pavement preservation processes" at Muleskinners, Mr. Trapp built an unwinnable scenario Prop. 1 and 2 supporters are now using.    Even though trust in City Hall is at all time lows, "a good first start" toward rebuilding Columbia would be for voters to "pass the stormwater fee increase," Trapp insisted.   

Mr. Love, on the other hand, urged "restoring trust" first, before asking for any more money.   It's not fair to ask anyone to give money to a person or an organization they can't trust.  Do that, and you lose.   But in Trapp's Unwinnable World, the public MUST give money to an untrustworthy City Hall, or face certain calamity. 

It's not the first time we've seen local politicians construct unwinnable scenarios.   Public involvement in public process is the most frequent target.  

Columbia's government officials often whine that "no one votes" or people "don't care" or "don't want to get involved."  Then they criticize those who do get involved, mostly through name calling:  "gadflies,"  "the civically obsessed," and now "the 4-percenters" -- the paltry four percent of Columbia residents Mayor McDavid says are not satisfied with City Hall.     

Mr. Trapp added to the name calling at the Muleskinners
debate.   "Columbia has enough bomb throwers," he said.   People who opposed Blight were "ideological," he added, contrasting the ideologues with his "pragmatic approach" to Blight's job-creating potential.  

Once again, doing the right thing is a bad thing.   Speaking up, getting involved is "throwing bombs" in Mr. Trapp's world view.  Even worse:  Columbia "has enough" of those people.  

Mr. Trapp revisited this unwinnable scenario at the LWV debate.  Yes, the City Council must work to restore trust, he said. 

But all those bomb throwers, with their high levels of civic engagement, actually create a mirage of distrust.  "We have a very open and participatory public," Mr. Trapp said.  "The frequency of their communications can mislead people into believing something is wrong when it really isn't."  

The comment echoed Columbia police chief Ken Burton, who once wrote off rising crime to "public perception."

"My apologies to the public who felt ill-used by this process," Mr. Trapp said one year ago tomorrow, during one of two near-sermons about his support for Opus and over one thousand new downtown student apartments.  "But we've had vigorous public process."

Therein lies the core of Councilman Trapp's cockeyed politics.   So long as Columbia has a "vigorous public process" -- no matter how objectionable, the outcome -- no matter how objectionable -- must be accepted.

When that scenario prevails, an engaged, involved, active public -- the envy of any true democracy -- can never win.     

-- Mike Martin