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Editorial: Flood diversion task force should conduct its business in public

The task force that will try to reach compromise in the design of the $2.2 billion Fargo-Moorhead flood diversion project is the awkward union of a shotgun marriage. North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum and Minnesota Gov. Mark Dayton announced the formation of the task force last week at Moorhead City Hall, where they'd met to discuss ways to reach an accommodation that would enable the troubled project to get a necessary permit from the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources. Unfortunately, the task force also is the offspring of secrecy, an idea hatched in closed meetings the governors have been holding since a federal judge urged them to settle the dispute through negotiation instead of litigation.

We're all for talking in the spirit of give-and-take as the way to achieve compromise that will allow the badly needed diversion project to move forward. But all of the stakeholders should worry if the task force operates in the way it was born, behind closed doors and in secrecy. After the governors announced their plan to meet privately to discuss the diversion—a meeting that took place after Dayton met privately with groups of Minnesotans affected by the project—The Forum asked the governors to reconsider and meet in public. The governors refused, preferring privacy over transparency.

The open meetings laws of both states require public meetings whenever a quorum of a governing body gathers; no such quorum occurred in a meeting apparently not attended by any other elected officials—although we just don't know, since it was shrouded in secrecy. The task force is to be comprised of eight members from each state, appointed by the governors.

Let's remember what's at stake here. This task force, a creature of government, could very well determine the fate of the diversion, the only viable option for protection against catastrophic flooding. The massive project is massively expensive, paid for by tax dollars contributed by the state of North Dakota and, through local sales taxes, by Cass County and the city of Fargo, as well as federal help. (The state of Minnesota as well as Moorhead and Clay County have yet to pledge any financial support.) As taxpayers and as residents whose property is at stake, the public has a clear and compelling right to be able to attend the task force's meetings as well as follow news reports of those meetings and proceedings.

Before the task force, technical experts had been discussing possible diversion modifications to enable the project to get a Minnesota permit. What are those options? We don't know. Fargo Mayor Tim Mahoney, who also serves as chairman of the Diversion Authority, has said engineers and technical experts have come up with a slate of 20 alternatives. What are they? What tradeoffs do they entail? We don't know, because they haven't been discussed publicly.

In order to gain legitimacy and public support, the task force must operate in the clear light of day, with pubic meetings. It's important not only to follow the spirit of the law, but also to do what is right, and follow the principle of transparency.

Editorials represent the views of Forum management and the Editorial Board.