City Council wisely OK'd oversight for infrastructure improvement

Establishing a citizen oversight committee does not diminish the Council's ultimate responsibility.

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To say Walla Walla's roads are a mess is like saying water is wet or the sky is blue on a sunny day. It's a fact.

And it's also a fact - a sad fact - city government's efforts to fix the crumbling, pothole-marred streets haven't succeeded.

The city hasn't been able to build momentum to overhaul the streets. Every endeavor, although well meaning, has been too little and often too late.

Voters over the years have rejected major bond proposals that would have provided a quick infusion of money to overhaul large sections of streets. Those defeats have, at least to some extent, been a result of voter distrust.

The public has simply not been convinced city government is using tax dollars wisely to fix streets. The daily teeth-rattling drives confirm that belief.

But last week the City Council took action that should go a long, long way toward changing that perception as it embarked on a plan to fix the streets and the decaying water-sewer system below them. Council members voted 5 to 2 to establish a citizens' Infrastructure Improvement and Oversight Committee. It is a brilliant and necessary move.

Yet, Council members Shane Laib and Jim Barrow resisted establishing the committee because they believe it is the City Council members who are ultimately responsible for this project. They also believe the establishment of an oversight committee sends the wrong message.

"I again am concerned that underlining this is a sinister mistrust that the city won't do what is right if it isn't watched," Barrow said at last week's City Council meeting.

The concern misses the point. Establishing a citizens' oversight committee does not, nor should it, diminish the City Council's ultimate responsibility.

But what it does do is bring in a group of citizens whose sole focus will be on this long-term project. It's likely a variety of perspectives will be represented on the committee. Looking at such a broad project from various angles tends to increase the likelihood problems, if they arise, will be spotted early.

And, like it or not, it seems there has been a growing distrust of government in general. The city of Walla Walla is not an exception. This committee will provide a certain level of comfort for a large segment of the population.

Council members and city officials were well aware of the mistrust that exists, which is why a key feature of the plan to improve the infrastructure was the establishment of a citizens' committee that's work would include financial audits.

The majority of the Council believes the public expects oversight would occur if this project was approved.

"I understand the reluctance for more committees," Council member Fred Mitchell told his fellow Council members. "But we need to be 100 percent honest with the public."

Exactly.

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