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Thursday, August 20, 2009

Brookings and Howard Referenda: Votes Swing on Transparency

The results of this month's referenda in Brookings and Howard offer a lesson for all politicians and organizations on the value of transparency. Last week Brookings voters reversed by a 3-to-1 margin a Brookings County Commission decision to buy and raze two houses in the city's historic district and blight the area with a parking lot. This week Howard voters approved by a nearly identical margin the city's decision to vacate parts of Farmers Avenue and an alley to make way for the Rural Learning Center's new conference facility.

The difference in outcomes is due in part to the difference in the projects. The Maroney Center will actually improve the community, bringing Howard 18 more jobs, increased visitor traffic, positive publicity, and increased economic and cultural activity. Another parking lot in Brookings would only facilitate more driving, increase the urban heat island, and trigger runaway global warming.

But fears of planetary extinction probably figured less in voters' minds than the way in which each project was sold to the local electorates. The Brookings County Commission caught heck for making its decision about the proporety purchase and the parking plan without much public discussion. Howard's Rural Learning Center has made great efforts from the beginning not just to inform but to involve Miner County residents in their plans for improving Howard, including a four-month design process with numerous day-long public listening and design sessions.

The takeaway for community leaders: Operate behind closed doors, and the public likely will vote you down. Open the doors, let everyone participate, and your project will fly.

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