If there’s an issue in Hancock County worthy of public conversation, it’s flood control.
For 10 years now, the community has been engaged in a discussion about what to do to minimize damage when the Blanchard River floods.
While there is still no consensus as to a solution, and likely will never be, almost everyone agrees something must be done. The debate often falls along geographical lines, pitting city versus county, urban versus rural, business versus agriculture.
That may never change, either, but the dialogue must continue as the community tries to find common ground.
We have reservations about privatizing the conversation.
Convening a small group of business people and farmers has been suggested by Hancock County Commissioner Brian Robertson as a way to bridge the gap between city and country ideas about how flood-control projects should proceed.
Such an ad hoc committee, by design, would avoid public meeting requirements by not having a quorum of any one government group. Having just one commissioner at such gatherings, for example, would circumvent Ohio’s public meeting law.
That could mean limited information would become known publicly about what was said, or not said, at the meeting.
It’s true, sometimes people will be more willing to openly discuss matters if they know they won’t be quoted the next day in the newspaper.
On the other hand, very few things, if any, should be kept from the public, especially regarding something as important as flood control, which in some cases involves individual property rights.
The goal of having non-public meetings, presumably, is to build trust between two parties with different points of view, but we question whether public trust can be established in private.
Our view is that trust more likely would come from being open and upfront with the very people affected by flood control, including all taxpayers. Opening the door to those with different thoughts or ideas could even shed new light.
Private meetings of a select group of people could do more harm than good, depending on who is invited to the table, especially if the public isn’t made aware of the discussion that takes place.
Agreements made in private meetings that lead elected officials to form public policy would do little to build trust.
Flood-control projects, large or small, will affect everyone in the watershed in some fashion. Going behind closed doors on an issue that has proven to be divisive and contentious is a slippery slope that could increase distrust, not reduce it.
The commissioners should think twice about shutting out the public, even if it’s being done in good faith. When it comes to government matters, the public must always be a primary participant, not a secondary one.