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McFeely: Time is of essence with F-M diversion

FARGO — It's all of the sudden become hush-hush, this Fargo-Moorhead diversion thing. The governor of Minnesota, Mark Dayton, said last week the task force that will try to find a path forward on permanent protection against catastrophic flooding will meet in private, without the media present. And this week, U.S. Sen. John Hoeven, members of the Diversion Authority and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers had a Forum reporter escorted out of a meeting. Other media were banned, too.

You should care. While the president and his minions bark about "fake news" every time an outlet reports something they don't like, we the unlikable media are still doing the work that needs doing—the best we can in today's changing landscape—by keeping an eye on public money. Your money.

And the last time we checked, the diversion involved plenty of your money—$2.2 billion, or somewhere thereabouts. The Diversion Authority is already $350 million into this thing and there are no guarantees the project is going to be built as envisioned.

So when Dayton, Hoeven and the rest of the suits explain away closed diversion meetings, you shouldn't fall for it. These are public bodies—from the governors of Minnesota and North Dakota to Corps personnel to the elected officials on the Diversion Authority—being paid with your money. They work for us, they are paid by us. We, the media, should be able to report on their meetings so you, the taxpayers, know how your money is being spent.

That's not the only jam in which the diversion principles find themselves. Maybe not even the biggest one, if you want to see this project get built.

Lightly reported on but critically important, there is a deadline rapidly approaching that should have Dayton and North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum working in overdrive, if the idea of a task force has any substance and isn't just a dog-and-pony show.

Monday, Nov. 6 is a date on which you'll want to keep an eye. That is the date by which the Diversion Authority has to file an appeal to federal District Court Judge John Tunheim's ruling that stopped construction on the project.

Tunheim's ruling came Sept. 6 and the authority had 60 days to appeal. The deadline is now less than a month away.

That means the task force, as yet unformed much less deep into meetings, will likely have at maximum three weeks to come up with a solution the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources deems worthy of a permit. At the press conference announcing the task force—after a meeting closed to the press, by the way—Dayton said he expects the task force to complete its work quickly. In usual Dayton fashion, he didn't define quicky, but used the words "months," "weeks" and "days."

Burgum, through a spokesman, said the Minnesota governor is aware of the Nov. 6 deadline.

"Gov. Burgum is aware of the Nov. 6 appeal deadline, and he did discuss it with Gov. Dayton during their in-person meeting last week," spokesman Mike Nowatzki said in an e-mail. "Details of the task force/working group, including the composition and timeline, are still being finalized and will be announced jointly in the near future."

That would be beneficial to diversion supporters. The Diversion Authority doesn't want to lose its chance at appealing Tunheim's decision if it doesn't look like the task force will accomplish anything. Then again, it doesn't necessarily want to appeal prior to the deadline because it wants to work in good faith with Minnesota members of the task force. It's an awkward situation.

Tunheim's ruling in September was not the final legal word on the diversion. It was essentially an injunction. The final word would be the lawsuit filed by opponents in 2013. But the longer the diversion battle drags on, the more expensive it becomes—to the tune of $60 million per year.

Time is of the essence here, in more ways than one.

Mike McFeely
Mike McFeely is a WDAY (970 AM) radio host and a columnist for The Forum. You can respond to Mike's columns by listening to AM-970 from 8:30-11 a.m. weekdays.
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