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EDITORIAL: Roadside art

Transparency in government is vital when it comes to the important issues confronting our political institutions and bureaucracies at all levels, from Washington, D.C., all the way down to local school boards.

But sometimes transparency is also about extraordinarily simple stuff, such as common courtesy, which is important to maintain the bonds of trust between the governing and the governed. We can hope the Nevada Department of Transportation has learned that lesson over the past couple of weeks.

The Review-Journal’s Henry Brean reported last week that art lovers in the tiny town of Baker, near the Utah border in central Nevada, are lashing out at NDOT for hauling away sculptures from a roadside exhibit launched by locals almost two decades ago. An NDOT crew cleared out 15 or so of the largest works of art from state Route 488 on Nov. 1, citing safety concerns along a five-mile stretch of highway between Baker and the Lehman Caves Visitor Center at Great Basin National Park.

Department spokeswoman Meg Ragonese said all of the sculptures that were removed were within the highway’s “clear zone,” which she described as an unobstructed area just off the pavement where motorists can safely stop if they pull off the road. A few of the art pieces were within 10 feet of passing vehicles, Ms. Ragonese said.

“Safety is our top priority,” Ms. Ragonese told Mr. Brean in an email.

However, Mr. Brean noted that NDOT also hauled off some pieces mounted on an existing barbed-wire fence along the highway or positioned far enough from the pavement to pose no real risk to traffic. That’s according to residents of the town 300 miles north-northeast of Las Vegas, including a few of the artists behind the roadside display.

Further, the road art tradition on Route 488 dates to 1997, it’s promoted on a local tourism website, and artists are encouraged to put up new pieces each June as part of a competition held during the annual Snake Valley Festival. Clearly, this display is part of the unique fabric of Baker.

Yet NDOT couldn’t even so much as notify residents in advance of the agency’s intent to take down and haul away the works deemed most obstructive. In a town of just 70 or so people, an NDOT official could have literally spent two hours knocking on doors to inform residents of the impending action, giving them not only an opportunity to collect the artwork, but to persuade NDOT to back off.

NDOT’s heavy hand here is unfortunate. The agency should investigate some sort of compromise and begin a conversation with local residents with the intention of allowing the tiny town of Baker to regain an important part of its identity.

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