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Letter: I'm skeptical of recent “technical difficulties” at Fargo City Commission meetings

Johnson is concerned about meetings planned to discuss a proposed study to examine the feasibility of converting the one-way pair system on University Drive and Tenth Street to two-way operations.

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I was recently afforded the opportunity to speak during the public comment portion of the July 25th Fargo City Commission meeting. I was second on the roster, speaking after a gentleman named Jed. He spoke passionately about his desire to see the commission put forth a city-wide vote to increase the number of city commissioners from 5 to 7, and he directly quoted our commissioners’ previous statements on this topic, all of which seemed to favor keeping an open mind, and potentially adding the item to our upcoming November election.

The following was my contribution to the meeting:

My name is Heather Johnson, I am a homeowner in the Hawthorne neighborhood since 2014. I am compelled to reach out to you from a place of sincere concern regarding transparency and good faith as it relates to the two-year University Drive and Tenth Street corridor study.

During the June 27 meeting, in particular agenda item 44, a pertinent memo was shared with this commission. The memo was dated June 21, and was sent from Jeremy Gorden, transportation division engineer, and Nicole Crutchfield, planning director. The topic of this memo was the University Drive/Tenth Street corridor study. The third sentence within this memo states: “The study will look at the feasibility of converting the one-way pair system to two-way operations.” The memo continues, in part, to explain further what this study will examine, the firm selected to conduct the study, and how it is funded.

Per the memo: “Attached to this memo is a summary of the project’s intention, schedule, and outreach plan.” So far, this appears benign in both nature and tone. However, when you look at the aforementioned summary provided by Bolton & Menk, it very clearly directs the exact opposite of truly representing the project’s intention (per the June 21 memo). The summary reads: “What the survey is NOT asking is ‘How would you design the road’ and ‘Should it be 2-way or 1-way?’”. The June 21 memo clearly states one intention, while the direction given is the exact opposite. That is where my distrust in the transparency of this study begins.

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I reached out to the senders of this memo in search of answers to some preliminary questions. I was interested in finding out the “local match” the city of Fargo is contributing towards the study. The answer to that question is $55,000.

Per the June 21 memo, “the first phase of the project is an extensive public visioning phase. This phase includes direct outreach to residents, employers, business owners, destinations, and major institutions along the corridor.” I was highly disappointed (yet wholly unsurprised) to discover the first set of public input meetings scheduled for August 11, 16 and 18 are of an online format (Zoom). It’s not 2020 anymore, restrictions are lifted in the majority of public spaces.

In the spirit of true public outreach, why are these extensive initial public input meetings not being conducted in-person? My strong suspicion is it is to avoid the very real possibility of photojournalists and reporters showing up to cover these meetings, because that would naturally increase the public’s awareness, knowledge and opinions about this study, and the very real ramifications of it, were the two-way operation plan to come to fruition.

I have asked Cindy at MetroCog to please reconsider the Zoom format, and instead offer in-person meetings, with an online comment option. I respectfully request this commission’s support for in-person public input meetings, effective as soon as possible. Thank you for your time.

Upon reviewing the video from the July 25th meeting, I was beyond dismayed to discover that both Jed’s contribution and my own were silenced, due to “technical difficulties.” Given my vocal skepticism regarding the transparency of this study, I am left with the conclusion that, yet again, things may not be operating within good faith.

It is worth noting, at the end of the meeting, the commission voted against leaving the option of a seven-member commission to the will of the people in November, despite their previous statements (which Jed quoted).

In conclusion, I urge residents to be aware that nothing is as it seems when it comes to this study. I will also note that Interface Studios has been subcontracted to assist with this study. This is the firm that completed the Downtown InFocus Plan a few years ago (aka the plan to convert NP Avenue and First Avenue from one-way pairs to two-way operations).

We deserve nothing less than transparency within our local government, and I look forward to keeping both eyes on every step of this two-year study.

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Heather Johnson lives in Fargo.

This letter does not necessarily reflect the opinion of The Forum's editorial board nor Forum ownership.

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