When the coronavirus pandemic struck, it fell to government at many levels to accommodate the people.

You can’t protect public health by herding thousands of voters into polling stations across the state. So to preserve the electoral process, Idaho Secretary of State Lawerence Denney innovated. He created an absentee ballot voting system that would be as user-friendly as possible.

When it became too risky to continue holding classes in the public schools and higher education, students were sent home with the opportunity to continue classes online.

The imperative to help idled workers keep body and soul together has transformed even the most doctrinaire free enterprise members of Congress into modern day New Dealers.

Yet, when it comes to respecting the rights of people to be heard in the middle of this crisis, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation and the Bonneville Power Administration don’t want to be bothered.

By Monday, the dam community expects to wrap up the public comment period on the Columbia River Systems Operation Review Draft Environmental Impact Statement.

It was already a challenge. People had only 45 days to digest what took four years to produce — an 8,000-page document that considered and then dismissed the option of breaching four lower Snake River dams as a means to prevent extinction of salmon and steelhead runs.

Not that long ago in other venues, people got more time to get their views on the record.

But then the pandemic struck, making it impossible to carry on with a series of scheduled public meetings. They were replaced with teleconferencing, a process that provided no ability for people to interact.

As the Lewiston Tribune’s Eric Barker noted Sunday, more than 1,000 people called in, about 300 made comments and another 2,200 have submitted written statements.

Under the circumstances, why wouldn’t it make sense to extend the comment period?

As you might expect, conservation groups think so.

“The teleconference calls clearly are not working for the public, with only 20-30 people speaking,” Save Our Wild Salmon spokeswoman Sam Mace told the Associated Press.

But so does the city of Lewiston — which fears how dam breaching might adversely affect the community. Those concerns so far have not been properly vetted in the comment process.

“To just sort of brush your hands and say, ‘Well, these are minor impacts, or they’re impacts that we don’t have a responsibility to mitigate,’ that just leaves us in an untenable position,” said Lewiston Community Development Department Director Laura Von Tersch. “So it’s really not a question about whether the dams stay or go. It’s about making sure Lewiston survives the transition.”

So do 13 members of Congress from Oregon and Washington — including Sens. Patty Murray and Maria Cantwell, both D-Wash.

They see it as a matter of fairness.

“The current crisis cannot plausibly provide for an environment conducive to robust public comment,” they wrote to White House Council on Environmental Quality Chairwoman Mary Neumayr. “Public feedback should be solicited in an accessible manner and, crucially, in person, so that the citizens who stand to be affected most directly can make their voices heard to the officials charged with making these decisions.”

The letter was signed exclusively by Democrats. But one key Republican — Idaho Sen. Mike Crapo — says they’re right. Although his Republican colleagues — Sen. Jim Risch and Congressman Russ Fulcher disagree — Crapo believes more discussion is better.

In other words, asks Crapo: What harm would it do to extend the comment period?

If you give more people a voice — and at least show some respect for their opinions — you may move this contentious process toward some kind of regional accommodation. Maybe that’s far-fetched after all the acrimony that’s built up over this issue. But cutting off debate — when one side believes it’s been poorly served — guarantees only more animosity and litigation.

Why feed the cynical view that the agencies running the dams are merely going through the motions of listening to people — before they go and finish what they wanted all along? — M.T.

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