This year’s mayoral race is deeply disappointing

David Webber, Columbia MISSOURIAN, March 22, 2019

I am disappointed and frustrated with this year’s City Council and mayoral campaigns. My hunch is that relatively few citizens are paying attention, but most would also be confused about what is really going on in the mayoral election between incumbent Mayor Brian Treece and long-time political veteran Chris Kelly.

What should have been a public discussion about improving Columbia’s city government seems to have gotten stuck in candidates’ personal ego feuds apparently instigated by Kelly’s repeated accusations that Treece has “serious ethical challenges.” Kelly stated in his opening statement at the League of Women Voters forum that “I’ve been elected 12 previous times, and in none of those have I ever criticized my opponent.” It would have been better had Kelly stuck with his previous habits.

Citizens need help separating the clay from the top soil, and little help is being provided by reporters, opinion leaders and other elected officials, even for the citizens who are strive to do our civic duty. In Columbia, we often think of ourselves as a “good-government, progressive town of active citizens.” To retain that goal, we need public discussion about critical issues such as community policing, infrastructure maintenance and the city’s financial health.

The lack of competition in the Third and Fourth wards meant that the campaign season has focused on the personalities of the two mayoral candidates, rather than on policy issues. Competitive council races and ballot measures would have resulted in more varied policy forums, more discussion of policy alternatives and more citizen interest.

Columbia is facing a range of critical decisions that will shape our city over the next couple of decades, and citizens seem unprepared to responsibly select representatives to make critical decisions for us. With an acting city manager, police chief and some department heads, along with declining city revenue, looming cutbacks to a limited city transit system, frequent cries of racial profiling and inadequate low-cost housing, the 2019 city election could have been opportunity.

The election could have been a chance for candidates to zoom in on pressing city problems in order to educate citizens about possible solutions.
Columbia residents deserve better. Few are capable of assessing the seriousness of Kelly’s claims. Gone are the days of a thriving newspaper market with experienced local reporters and columnists digging into the details
Treece and Kelly are both pleasant, knowledgeable, hard-working, skilled public officials with extraordinary verbal abilities that can hide as much as enlighten. In my ideal world, they would present voters their understanding of the job of mayor, their experience dealing with other officials and citizens, their priorities and concerns, and the tradeoffs they think the city will need to make.

Instead Kelly has made allegation of Treece’s “ethical challenges” that somehow are “significant threats to the integrity of the community” the focus of his opponent’s campaign. Kelly points to two items about Treece’s occupation as a full-time lobbyist in the state capital. The first is Kelly’s claim of a conflict of interest in Treece’s involvement in a bill that would allow school districts to contract with city transit authorities to transport students. This is a conflict that legislators, lobbyists and lawyers routinely face. Treece needs to take extra care to avoid any conflict. He can do that.
The second is Kelly’s allegation of Treece’s long-term contract with a health care firm named Preferred Family Healthcare, which has been accused of Medicaid fraud.

Kelly’s website provides extensive details about this case but it is not clear if Treece’s firm is involved. Treece says it is not. Moreover, Kelly never does explain how this incident is related to Treece’s performance as mayor.
Rhetorical charges of ethical failure are common in politics. They are cheap, make for good drama and require little evidence. Kelly’s strategy deserves extra scrutiny.

It is unfortunate that he used this strategy to set the tone of his campaign. He protests a bit too much, given that one of his early actions was to delete his Twitter feed containing hundreds of comments that might prove embarrassing.
Of course, Kelly excuses his own behavior on grounds that his tweets reflect his personality, a pleasant blend of candor and humor that is never meant to harm. But not everyone shares that view

There must be more to the Treece-Kelly feud than meets the eye, and the lack of local investigative reporting makes a big difference. In the olden days, a reporter would explore Kelly’s departure from an infrastructure commission in April 2016 and research the personal history of Kelly and Treece in the Missouri legislature, where they were bound to have had many interactions over the years.
So far, the high point in the 2019 mayoral campaign has been the Chamber of Commerce debate broadcast on KMIZ where the panel of questioners asked policy questions. A key contrast between the candidates centered around the budget situation.

Kelly gave a seemingly persuasive answer concluding that “the budget is not balanced.” Treece responded that the “budget is balanced” because the state has not yet credited the city with its sales tax revenue. My response: Who should I believe? If Kelly had focused on the budget and other policy issues from Day One of the campaign, he would be more credible.

At this point, the key question for voters is this: Should the incumbent mayor be re-elected for another term or has a challenger presented a strong case that a change is due?

Legal rights for nature — not such a crazy idea

David Webber, Columbia Missourian March 10, 2019

The Lake Erie Bill of Rights, adopted by voters in Toledo, Ohio, last month, establishes the right of citizens to sue polluters of Lake Erie for damages to the lake itself. It establishes “legal rights for nature.”

At first blush, this sounds wacky, but the more one thinks about it, the idea makes sense. Adoption of this statewide, nationwide and worldwide would be a rather orderly way to protect our common resources by closing one on the chief loopholes in the free enterprise system that has resulted in large-scale environmental destruction.

Lake Erie has been suffering from algae blooms — massive growth of oxygen-hungry plants fueled by fertilizer runoff from hundreds of farms, some small family farms, some large agribusinesses. People who live near or fish in Lake Erie see the loss of lake vitality.

Farmers don’t mean harm; they are just farming. But they are also generating “spillovers” or “externalities” because they cannot capture the runoff from their land and remove the fertilizer whose sole purpose is to stimulate plant growth, regardless if it is on crop land or in Lake Erie.

“Legal rights for nature” does not mean Lake Erie must hire lawyers. It means a citizen could ask a court to recognize him, her or them as the legal guardian for Lake Erie, just as adults often are the legal guardians of children under 18 or their aging parents.

Since the beginning of time, humans have often used public space and public resources as their own. Back in the olden days, citizens allowed their sheep and cattle to graze on public land, took fish from a public stream and collected mushrooms from public land.

On a small scale with low population density, this private use of public resources didn’t matter much. A free-flowing body of water cleans itself up over time. Leap ahead to the industrial and advanced agricultural revolution, and the consequences have been much greater, while facing rather weak government regulation mainly because the American mind is focused on individual freedoms. People living downstream, or around the lake, are adversely affected by a pollution.

While professors of “Principles of Economics,” a course taken by hoards of college students since World War II routinely teach and preach about the superiority of the free enterprise system in achieving “optimal economic efficiency,” they tend to glaze over one of the key assumptions underlying the free market: that “all goods are private goods” and “there are no external effects.” Then they go on to demonstrate, in their land of make-believe, that all is well.

Not so fast. What if producers are dumping wastes into public waters or into the atmosphere? Doesn’t this justify total government ownership? No problem, free market advocates say, just “internalize externalities” by adding the social cost of water pollution to the private cost of crop production and the “the invisible hand of Adam Smith” is free to do it magic once again.

Not so fast. What if the means for adding the social cost related to private pollution is the political system where private interests easily dominate the general public interests in order to prevent the accumulation of governmental power and to preserve individual freedom? No problem, legal advocates say, “just sue polluters” and they will correct their environmental spillovers or switch to another line of business.

Not so fast. To become a plaintiff in the American legal system a persona needs “legal standing.” That means you need to demonstrate to a court that you have suffered a real, significant, individual harm. Few citizens will spend their time and money to sue because of loss of swimming, fishing or hiking opportunities.

Furthermore, what if early legal and political thinkers inanely grant corporations individual political and economic rights, limit individual corporate managers personal liability, and grant corporations individual rights such as freedom of speech, once thought to belong to only breathing homo sapiens.

The real-world result has been that the major regulatory approach to pollution control, such as reducing chemical runoff into rivers and sulfur emissions into the air, has been a complex maze of legal regulations developed piecemeal over 50 years at three levels of government.

Unsurprisingly a byproduct of this regulatory morass is sometimes nit-picky, costly regulation that becomes the rotten apple of governmental regulation and is the basis for simple-minded, knee-jerk opposition to all government regulation. There was a simple regulatory framework that some economists wrote about more than 100 years ago but that never was adopted in our legal and political systems. Namely, “internalize externalities” by giving nature its own rights. The Lake Erie Bill of Rights adopted in Toledo, Ohio, does that.
Of course, one city is too small to save Lake Erie, but the Toledo citizen initiative adopted Feb. 26 is a first step. Supporters should now collect petitions to get the idea on an Ohio-wide initiative.

Environmentally-minded citizens should do the same in remaining 49 states. Legal rights for nature would make relying on the free enterprise system a lot more environmentally friendly.

David Webber joined the MU Political Science Department in 1986 and wrote his first column for the Missourian in 1994.