Defending DeLapp (but not his behavior)

"Two cheers for Democracy: one because it admits variety and two because it permits criticism. Two cheers are quite enough: there is no occasion to give three."

Author E.M. Forster’s quote, from "Two Cheers for Democracy," is layered with a playfulness and frankness that sounds as though it could have come from the mouth of Lake Elmo City Council Member Steve DeLapp. However, Forster’s words can also be applied to DeLapp, a 20-year Lake Elmo resident and member of the City Council since 1995.

Recently, the 3M architect and vocal public servant has come under fire for his adversarial views of the Metropolitan Council, which must approve the city’s comprehensive plan and is requiring a tripling of population and significant sewer installation over the next 25 years. DeLapp has also been criticized for his occasionally hostile comments about his fellow city representatives and their opinions in regards to the comp plan, currently in flux after missing the June 15 deadline for submission to the Met Council.

But even though his methods and his timing are sometimes questionable and despite his apparent mistrust and reluctance to compromise, Steve DeLapp is an invaluable member of the Lake Elmo city leadership. His spirit and unfiltered vehemence, while difficult to bear at times, are nonetheless a refreshing change in a system that sags under the influence of special interests. He brings both the variety and criticism Forster was speaking of to Lake Elmo City Council meetings, and the results are downright infuriating at times.

DeLapp is like the American bald eagle, a rare bird - though he can occasionally act like a turkey.

Politics as unusual

"Everybody in Lake Elmo can get the hell out in about one month if they don’t like it here," DeLapp said recently. "The differences between Lake Elmo and every other city is obvious to people who live here. (The Met Council) has no right to tell all of the people who moved here because it’s a rural city in the last 20 years that it’s not going to be any more. That’s the comp plan they moved here under.

"It’s a blatant breach of trust and I won’t do it. Even if only half of the people agree with me, I’m representing that half."

It’s statements like these that can understandably get under the skin of DeLapp’s fellow council members who have been trying to resolve their conflict with the governor-appointed Met Council for nearly three years now (DeLapp is the only current council member who has been in office during that entire span).

But all of DeLapp’s seemingly careless and colorful remarks are motivated by an admirable pride and fierce loyalty to his community. No matter how truculent or contrary he may seem, (and no matter how cliché it may sound), DeLapp speaks his mind and isn’t afraid to take a stand on a given issue.

Perhaps the most surprising aspect of his character, as evidenced in City Council meetings, is his willingness to listen to another perspective, openness to criticism and even coy self-deprecation and charm. A self professed "liberal Republican," he doesn’t appear to follow any particular agenda or party-lines and takes each issue at face value. His specific safeguarding of the environment and interest in the aesthetic value of the city are unparalleled on the council.

"My concerns are maintaining and sustaining the environment of the world we inherited and I think Lake Elmo is doing a better job than most of the cities under pressure and I’m very proud of it," he said.

But even as DeLapp defies political tendencies by heralding information to the public and consistently considering the impact on individual residents, he remains endlessly frustrating in his obstinacy. While our system might be better off if it had more politicians with Steve DeLapp’s virtues, it would be far worse if they also had his vices.

Room for improvement

The stubbornness with which DeLapp clings to occasionally unrealistic goals merely serves to alienate him from his colleagues. His attention to minute details on nearly every issue leads to unnecessarily heated debates and simple bad timing. His penchant for pontificating, relating barely-relevant stories and taking off on red-faced tangents can easily turn an hour-long meeting into three.

When it comes to the comprehensive plan, DeLapp firmly believes he is fighting the good fight and criticizes his fellow council members for every additional inch they seem willing to give (though he showed promise when he compromised his staging plan for the city’s growth by seven years in order to come to unanimous agreement last month). He insists that he is speaking for the residents of the city and it’s difficult to dispute that fact when he has been elected to his office three times.

During the June 7 council meeting, DeLapp raised a stink about his exclusion from the "clarification team" that would meet with Met Council representatives earlier this week. When told that he had a tendency to get too "heated," DeLapp responded that there was a time and a place for certain approaches and that he would be levelheaded during a meeting with Bell.

DeLapp needs to apply a little more of that demeanor to important council decisions first, in order to build more trust with the rest of the council. Those four members do a yeoman’s job of tolerating DeLapp’s occasional rants, but they would also do well to heed his advice and seek his expertise more often.

As the city struggles to define itself and its future, DeLapp can be a valued voice of experience and bring balance to any issue with his critical eye, if he remains focused on the ultimate goal of improving his community.

So two cheers for Steve DeLapp: one because he offers variety and two because he values criticism. But two cheers are quite enough: there is no occasion to give three.

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