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Published November 14 2010

Forum editorial: It really is a matter of trust

A closed meeting sanctioned by elected officials, even a marginally legal meeting, is usually a mistake. The session last Monday with local leaders and a top U.S. Army Corps of Engineers officer about the Fargo-Moorhead Red River diversion was such a mistake. At a time when opposition to the diversion is fueled primarily by mistrust of Fargo officials, a stealth meeting confirms opponents’ suspicions.

The meeting apparently was carefully structured to skirt North Dakota’s crystal-clear open meetings law. A quorum of either city or county elected officials was not present. If we are to believe city officials, the mayors of Moorhead and Fargo, one Cass County commissioner, one Clay County commissioner, one Fargo commissioner, city and county staff, a couple of North Dakota legislators and the corps general were in attendance.

The meeting was unannounced and closed to press and public at the request of corps Brig. Gen. Michael Walsh, said Fargo Mayor Dennis Walaker. The meeting was requested by the general to update the project’s timeline and to discuss the recent passage of the county’s half-cent special flood protection sales tax, not exactly the stuff of classified state secrets.

Given the topics of the session, it made little sense to close the doors. The apparent reason was to accede to Walsh’s request. Not good enough. Local officials, especially Walaker, should have politely said “no” to the general. After all, Walaker has demonstrated in the past he is not intimidated by state or federal heavyweights. It was the mayor, after all, who in the 2009 flood told the state and feds to essentially “stick it,” when they wanted to evacuate his city.

But more to the point: Closed meetings about the progress of the diversion plan send the wrong message. And it’s not only downstream opponents who can use last week’s closed meeting to suggest diversion planners can’t be trusted. It’s also elected city officials who were cut out of the session. Moorhead City Council members Nancy Otto and Mark Hintermeyer objected to the private meeting. And Otto sits on the Metro Flood Study Work Group. Moorhead Mayor Mark Voxland countered that none of the information he heard at the meeting was new. So again, why was the meeting closed?

Forum editorials represent the opinion of Forum management and the newspaper’s Editorial Board.