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A good start

Last Thursday’s public hearing in Abbotsford represented a long-overdue community conversation that touched on several festering issues within the city. Even though a lot of people walked away disappointed with the decisions made by the planning commission and city council, we hope it was the beginning, not the end, of an important dialog about the future of the city.

Ultimately, after hearing descriptions of deplorable living conditions and families living in squalor, we feel city officials made the right decision in approving the construction of two more apartment buildings. Like many of the residents in the Sportsmens Addition and on Pine Street, however, we’re not entirely thrilled with how the city handled the process.

As always, our biggest concern is lack of transparency. Many of the planning commission and city council agendas still contain closed session notices that are way too vague. On March 16, for example, the planning commission held a meeting with two closed session discussions for “competitive and bargaining reasons,” but neither of the items listed the “specific nature of the business,” as required by Wisconsin’s open meetings law.

In fact, both items on the March 16 agenda simply listed “TIF property” as the subject for discussion. As everyone knows, there is a lot of “TIF property” spread across Abbotsford, all the way from the Schilling subdivision in the northwest corner down to the land around Kwik Trip just south of Interstate 29. Simply referring to “TIF property” is not “reasonably likely to apprise members of the public and the news media” about the subject matter of the closed session, as required by state law.

Whenever a government body closes the doors to the public, it can breed distrust among those who are not allowed in on the conversation. That is why Wisconsin’s open meetings law declares that “the public is entitled to the fullest and most complete information regarding the affairs of government as is compatible with the conduct of governmental business.” With so many “irons in the fire” when it comes to TIF proposals and development deals, the city needs to go out of its way to make sure the public knows what may be on the horizon — whether it’s two new apartment buildings or a new medical clinic on Highway 13. Even if city officials feel these developments will be positive ones for the city, they need to let members of the public know sooner rather than later so there’s time to talk.

Otherwise, you end up with pent-up frustration and gnawing suspicion — much of which was on display during the public comment period of last week’s meeting. The tension in the air was heavy at times, and resulted in some terse exchanges and gavel-pounding.Asanothermovetowardopengovernment, perhaps it would have been a good idea to open the floor back up to comments after city officials and Abbyland Foods reps had a chance to make their case. Allowing a limited back-andforth exchange can go a long way in making sure people don’t feel muzzled.

Fortunately, the hearing did bring to light an issue that desperately needs attention — the scourge of unlivable dwellings and the slum lords who exploit the lack of affordable housing in the area. The city should take immediate action to address this issue by working with the police department to identify the city’s worst properties, arranging for health inspections and eventually starting condemnation proceedings against property owners who refuse to provide livable conditions.

We’re cautiously optimistic that the two new apartment buildings will do more good than harm. City officials and Abbyland have heard loud and clear from the Northside’s neighbors, and it’s our sincere hope that reconciliation will occur on a person-to-person level. In the end, that’s the only way a community works.

The Tribune-Phonograph editorial board consists of publisher Kris O’Leary and editor Kevin O’Brien