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Published March 30 2011

Forum editorial: No need for ‘secret’ evacuation plan

Fargo city officials seem to believe residents of the city should be kept in the dark about flood evacuation procedures. They have stamped this season’s evacuation document “confidential,” which is a curious thing to do since the people who would be most affected by an ordered and orderly evacuation need to know the plan.

The handling of this year’s evacuation plan has been clumsy, to say the least. Early media requests to see the document were met with the claim that there was no plan. But then, miraculously, there was a plan. But it was confidential. The 2011 plan apparently details how an evacuation would be undertaken – including travel routes, staging locations and responsibility for executing the plan’s components.

In other words, the document that did not exist and then did is composed of exactly the kind of information residents would need if the flood is severe enough to warrant evacuation. It makes no sense to classify information that would be vital to residents who might want to develop family or individual evacuation plans to dovetail with the city’s procedures.

What is most curious about the phantom 2011 evacuation document is that high-ranking city officials say they did not know it existed. On March 7, in response to a Forum request, the city administrator, city attorney and a city commissioner said the document did not exist. The Forum made a similar request last week, and – lo and behold – the document did exist. The new plan has been updated several times since the 2009 flood. So it seems that some sort of plan for this year had been around before The Forum’s March 7 request to see it. And the 2010 plan, from which the 2011 plan is updated, is not a secret file.

Which leads to questions: Who’s in charge here? Who has been updating the plan? Have elected city commissioners (one said he was not aware a new plan existed) been left out of the loop?

Defenders of this Keystone Cops saga insist the plan is exempted from North Dakota open records law because it is a “security system plan.” Of course, attaching that convenient misrepresentation to the plan is City Hall’s doing. But the practical effect of a stealth plan is to first, undermine the city’s credibility in the flood fight, and second, to create an overblown security threat where none exists. One commissioner said the plan should be made public when the elevation of the Red River reaches 38 or 39 feet. How would the “security” picture have changed from today, with the river level at about 17 feet? Not much, we suggest.

Fargo’s flood-fighting record is good. It engenders confidence. City residents have stepped up routinely to do their part. But a flimsy security protocol that keeps them in the dark about an evacuation plan insults their intelligence.

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