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Can the commissioners and their critics see the forest for the trees?

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Richland County courthouse trees

Richland County commissioners plan a public meeting on April 9 to discuss a beautification project in front of the administration building. Several tulip poplar trees in front of the administration building were removed last week.

It’s safe to say that the Richland County Commissioners would love a do-over.

The commissioners have caught an enormous amount of flak recently over the removal of a dozen or so tulip poplars from the Richland County courthouse lawn. They deserved all of it; but not because they don’t care about the environment or operate some secret local government cabal, as has been suggested.

On the contrary, this board of commissioners have routinely governed in ways that put people and the environment over politics, often at considerable political risk.

Some examples: Commissioner Marilyn John led the ultimately futile effort to mitigate flooding in Shelby for generations to come. The work was transparent and collaborative, and it nearly cost the commissioner an election.

Last year, Commissioner Tony Vero collaborated with Joe Trolian of Richland Mental Health and Recovery Services and Karen Seman of Richland County Development Group to convince the City of Ontario to continue funding public transit for routes going to and from Ontario.

Their work expanded public transit and tried to develop environmentally friendly flood mitigation. These are not the actions of people who hate the environment.

That being said, much of the criticism is deserved. The commissioners failed to get meaningful buy-in from constituents before embarking on a project that dramatically altered a public gathering place. When the criticism came, their public statements could be read as pretty defensive.

At the tail end of a month where the Mansfield Rising plan debuted amidst extensive public involvement and enthusiasm, it was a dissonant note in an otherwise collaborative symphony.

The commissioners got a crucial part of the process backward. Results were predictable and their wounds were self-inflicted. They can do better. We know this, because they have done better in the past.

So what we have here is — if everyone wants it — an opportunity.

The commissioners claim to have a plan, and there’s a meeting Tuesday at 10:30 a.m. to discuss it.

“The new landscape will coincide with inclusion of a "Gold Star Memorial" (a memorial that honors families, relatives, and children who sacrificed a loved one in the service of our county), and the planting of new trees more suitable for a downtown setting.

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"While we cannot please everyone with our decisions, we believe the public will be proud of the memorial and the new landscape and lighting designs," Commisioner Vero wrote on his public Facebook page Wednesday.

That sounds great, and it’s a good start toward a more welcoming and beautiful public space. It’s also an opportunity for the public to know, through the actions of the board, that their voices were heard.

Along with that, the critics of the commissioners would do well to dial back their outrage, tap the brakes on the name calling, and listen as well. There are experienced environmental advocates and experts in landscape design among the critics. Their input can prove crucial before the first new tree is placed.

There’s no bringing back the trees that were lost, but there’s lessons to be learned from them. We are too small a city to divide our resources and achieve greatness. We have to work together. If the courthouse is the house of government, opening the proverbial front door to the public isn’t enough to make a gathering. The people must be invited in and made to feel at home.

There’s no do-over in this case. But there is another chance. Let’s hope the commissioners and their critics choose to take it.

President of Richland Source and founding board member of Idea Works.