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DNR board right to end social dinners

Public decisions — such as whether to allow snowmobiling at a state park — should be made at public meetings.

They shouldn’t be hashed out and all but decided at a private dinner the night before a public vote.

So it’s good to see the state Department of Natural Resources ending its troubling practice of holding dinners for members of its Natural Resources Board on the evenings before board meetings. The risk and appearance of secret deliberations were too great to continue these social gatherings, which the public wasn’t invited to attend.

Hobnobbing over food and drinks the night before voting creates too much potential for board members and DNR staff to discuss and tally votes behind closed doors — in violation of the state’s open meetings law.

That’s what opponents of snowmobiling in Blue Mound State Park, about 30 miles west of Downtown Madison, feared had occurred at a board dinner last January.

Former Blue Mound State Park superintendent Karl Heil and Blue Mound resident Kenneth Wade filed a complaint this fall with the Dane County District Attorney’s Office alleging a violation of the state’s open meetings law. The complainants alleged that DNR staff had polled Natural Resources Board members on their positions prior to a Jan. 27 vote. And according to an email, DNR staff planned to attend the board’s dinner on the eve of the meeting to answer questions and head off opposition. About 215 people had sent in public comments against snowmobiling at the park, which hadn’t been allowed there since the early 1990s.

Cross country skiers, mountain bikers and other park users who wanted to preserve the park’s modern tradition of catering to “silent sports” felt their opposition to the change had been undermined at the board’s dinner meeting. The DNR didn’t notify the public about the time and place of the dinner, so the public couldn’t attend. And the day after the dinner, the board voted to approve a new park master plan that included a snowmobile trail.

Whether or not snowmobiles are a good fit for Blue Mound park, all sides of the issue deserve an open and fair process with generous opportunities for input.

The DNR’s decision to halt the dinners will help restore public trust. So will revisiting the snowmobiling issue to ensure proper transparency by the board.

Congratulations to the DNR for getting this right in the end.

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