Pay attention, and be heard

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Opportunities to be informed are there, but matter little if people won't engage.

FOR THE PAST quarter century advocates have been trying to shut down Fourth Street in the vicinity of Beloit Memorial High School. Members of the public pushed back every time. Back in the '90s the issue was even put to referendum, and voters told government to keep the street open.

Persistence pays off, though, and Fourth Street closure supporters will get their way. What is being billed as a temporary one-year closure as a test has been ordered by the city. Supposedly, the matter will be reviewed after that time, but take this to the bank - Fourth Street will not reopen.

Is that a good thing? We believe that's something in which citizens should have a voice.

But with all due respect to those citizens, first, they have to pay attention.

THIS IS A CLASSIC example of the extent to which the governed tune out the government until something happens that jolts them awake.

The timeline leading up to the Fourth Street closure plan is instructive.

Well over a year ago district officials, in cooperation with Beloit 2020 and City Hall, began discussing a sweeping plan to remake the high school campus and surrounding area. The plan involves a number of phases, including a new administrative center approved and scheduled to begin construction within weeks. The overall plan, realistically, could not work with a steady stream of traffic flowing right through the middle of proposed improvements.

All that was discussed in full public view, with the school board approving the early steps to get the project rolling.

The Fourth Street closure came up multiple times, in both the school venue and for city review. The city and school district even held a public meeting on the topic - and no one, that's right, no one, from the citizenry bothered to show up and speak up, for or against.

So the city proceeded through the Traffic Review Committee and council process - open to the public - and moved forward.

NONE OF WHICH, of course, stopped critics from coming out once decisions were made and actions were in play.

Moral of the story: Too many people prefer to complain after-the-fact rather than participate in governing themselves.

We've said it before and it bears repeating. The Founders brought forth an experiment that counts on people becoming informed and mustering the energy to engage with the process of self-government, through open representative institutions.

In this instance those representative bodies provided multiple opportunities for people to engage. The Beloit Daily News, performing the duty the Founders envisioned through the First Amendment, covered and published multiple articles on the plan and the process. This whole thing should not have been a surprise.

Yet it was, for many, and appears to be in accord with the unfortunate prevailing climate of the times. People are not doing the work and investing the time to be well informed. They are not engaging with their representative institutions. They are not following the news. None of that stops people from angrily spouting off - often, from a place of profound ignorance - with social media platforms providing a loud bullhorn to amplify opinion over truth.

That adds nothing to the Founders' plan for liberty, and indeed poses a threat to good governance. The Founders had expectations of the people. We're letting them down.

A FINAL WORD: So, what about closing Fourth Street? Here's what we think. Sell the closure on the basis of its crucial role in overall improvements planned around the campus. That plan - a cooperative effort by the district, the city and Beloit 2020 - is a good one. Of course, the critical element is whether Beloit can find the money to get it done. If so, the community will be better for it, and closing Fourth Street makes sense. The idea that it's all about safety is less compelling, in our view. Traffic is only a serious issue a couple times a day - when kids come and go. That does not require 24-hour closure of a major artery. And safety concerns largely could be mediated by traffic enforcement and preventing kids from willy-nilly jaywalking. Nevertheless, we support the overall campus improvement plan. Base the Fourth Street pitch on the positives of that design, both to justify the closure and to build support for future improvements.

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