Writings and observations

Open door progress

Acouple of things came out of the Burley water summit Idaho Governor Butch Otter called for this week. Neither was what he probably was hoping for.

One was a raft of bad headlines for holding the key parts of the conference behind closed doors; the critics included not only newspapers but also the chair of the Senate resource committee, Gary Schroeder, R-Moscow: “I don’t think that my constituents want me involved in any type of situation in which public policy is decided behind closed doors.” And, consequently, he declined to go to Burley.

Otter’s rationale for closure was that deals might be more likely struck if no one had to couch their language in careful, quotable terms; if they could speak freely. Sometimes it works that way; that’s how the massive (and useful) Nez Perce/Snake River deal was crafted. But that was a discussion of private interests and options in the context of a lawsuit; the water summit was intended to address more conventional policy-making about water distribution. In this case, everyone present was prospectively on the opposite side of possible lawsuits or regulatory actions – not the place to let your hair down. On top of that, anyone outside the room was likely to become immediately skeptical about whatever deals were struck inside, which is a bad place to start policy making. (There were also issues about who was and wasn’t in the inner ring of negotiators – for example, Pocatello Mayor Roger Chase, whose city has been an important factor in water law in recent years, was bumped off the central group, in favor of the new mayor of Idaho Falls.)

In the event, the second thing that came of it is that very little did:No sweeping agreements were reached. The governor’s spokesman, who would have the most incentive for spinning any results positively, said that “I think we’ve got a basis for moving forward, but I don’t think I’d call it an agreement.” A basis for moving forward might mean not much more than that no physical violence occurred in the closed room.

In the next round of efforts toward resolution (there never was any way this would get settled all at once), a more open approach – making clear to everyone the varied stakes involved, and that there really aren’t any villains here – could yield more general understanding, which ought to result in some solutions. At least, after Burley, it might be considered as an alternative that could result in no less progress, and certainly in fewer bum headlines.

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