Statesman Editorial: A growing CWI must have the public’s trust

A month ago the College of Western Idaho was connecting the dots to a bright and expansive future into Boise with the blessing and backing of the Treasure Valley community.

Much of that is still true, though decisions surrounding the steps to create a Boise campus have created a public relations setback that will take time and care to overcome.

Let’s forget, for a moment, all of the accounting and estimates and proposed deals on a piece of West Boise river property and the $8.8 million CWI has tentatively offered to pay for it. That is yet to play out.

What is more important in the long term is the public perception. Did CWI just blow the messaging on this matter? Or has something more serious occurred, namely a loss of trust? We may not know until the school decides to attempt to pass a $150 million bond that would require a two-thirds vote.

Though better late than never, it was good that CWI Board of Trustee President Mary Niland acknowledged mistakes by the board about how the land purchase unfolded: making an offer without seeking an independent appraisal of the 10-acre tract that could become the permanent classroom building in Boise; dragging its feet about how or why such an oversight happened, even as a CWI survey was coming out about community support for an expansion; and suddenly announcing a land purchase deal for an amount some feel is too high.

Governments, boards and individual public servants ought to be wise to the idea by now that the public doesn’t like surprises. There is no substitute to transparency when expenditures enter an intersection filled with the traffic of controversy and public funding scrutiny. Just put out the facts and you never have to walk back, talk back or sugarcoat the strategy.

All the assurances in the world from a spectrum of experts or gut feelings about property value are no substitute for trotting out all the known numbers to measure it by as soon as possible — and letting the community in on the decision that needs to be made.

We don’t feel CWI was hiding anything as much as its leadership was simply oblivious to the level of community curiosity about the deal. The Treasure Valley likes the CWI success story, but it will balk anytime it feels it’s not getting the whole story.

The people deserved better this time. CWI is soon to get that property appraisal. Winning back community good could be a bit more complicated.

Statesman editorials are the unsigned opinion expressing the consensus of the Statesman’s editorial board. To comment on an editorial or suggest a topic, email editorial@idahostatesman.com.