OPINION: Egan Slough vote is warning to all in Flathead

It was profoundly disappointing to read the report of the Nov. 21 decision by our Flathead County commissioners to reject the citizen-proposed expansion of the Egan Slough Conservation District, despite the overwhelming support of district residents and concerned Flathead Valley citizens.

This decision represents a serious failure of representative, inclusive government for the neighborhood, the community, and the Flathead Valley, as well as representing yet another example of the propensity of the current Flathead County commissioners to selectively disdain and ignore the will of a substantial part of the citizenry and community. It is unconscionable for the commissioners to subvert the will of the people; in addition, it is mightily offensive when a public official judges the motives of the citizens, as reportedly did Commissioner Krueger by his statement doubting that agriculture preservation is the driving force behind the expansion. While there are many issues involved here, among them established law and policy, administrative procedures, legal opinions, potential litigation, personal agendas, biases and individual conjecture, I believe the fundamental issue is that of the right, indeed the responsibility, of citizens to establish and maintain the sort of neighborhood and community in which they choose to invest, live their lives, and raise their families. It is this issue that I address.

With the increasing population and population density of the Flathead Valley, it seems misguided and short-sighted to continue to concentrate on individual property rights to the exclusion of neighborhood and community values. Both should and must be respected; however, our republic was founded on the principle of limited government for the greater good of the greater citizenry, not of the individual, not of the government. It is reprehensible for elected representatives of the people to claim to rely exclusively on law and policy, defying, and at the expense of, the will of the citizenry. To rely solely on set-in-stone legalese is a classic case of the tail wagging the dog. Laws and policies can be changed. The quality of families’ lives, neighborhoods, and communities is at stake here. For a governing body to invite comment and ideas from the governed, then to disdain and ignore them, is terrible governance. It is essentially despotism. The first principle that elected officials must never forget is that in our republic, government is by the people and for the people.

It is long past time that our governing, legislating, and judicial bodies — from local neighborhoods, to states, to our nation — focus on the will of the citizenry of neighborhoods and communities, which includes individual citizens, rather than simply on individuals. We each have a right to know in advance the sort of neighborhood and community in which we choose to invest our lives and energies and raise our families.

But in addition to this right, we should have, indeed must have, the additional inherent right, and responsibility, to determine, together with our fellow neighborhood and community citizens, the continuing nature of our neighborhoods and communities we desire. Developing growth policies and neighborhood plans that are formulated and agreed-to by affected citizens is a good start to realizing these rights. However, allowing a small group of elected officials the power to overrule the will of these citizens effectively nullifies those rights. Restoring citizens’ faith in government will only begin with restoring their faith that government indeed listens to them, honors and respects their ideas, and works for them. This in turn leads to citizen trust and willingness to become involved not only in government, but also in the quality of our neighborhoods and communities. The next decision by our county commissioners could just as well affect any of us, our neighborhood, and our community. We are all in this together.

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Schaus is a Kalispell area resident.

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