This Week's Editorial
Quality staff, vibrant community earn ANR statewide recognition PDF E-mail

The News-Register made some headlines of its own this week, winning statewide recognition as a strong weekly publication dedicated to the community it serves.
Paula and I were proud to represent the staff at the annual Nebraska Newspaper Association awards ceremony this weekend in Grand Island. We took the reigns of a strong newspaper tradition 14 years ago when we bought the paper from Butch and Nancy Furse, and remain humbled today realizing what a wonderful staff we have working on your behalf to continue that tradition each and every day.
Our business has changed dramatically since we came to Aurora, with the Internet and social media revamping the landscape in terms of how people get information that’s important to them. What hasn’t changed is our commitment to covering Aurora and Hamilton County like nobody else can, which makes a huge difference when you’re looking for a credible source of news about your hometown.
Judges in the Omaha World-Herald’s annual Service to Agriculture competition put a nice feather in our cap, honoring the News-Register for its coverage of the state’s largest industry. Former manager editor Laurie Pfeifer took that mission seriously, coordinating a local ag-based news or feature story each week, even in the dead of winter when it may seem like there isn’t a whole lot to write about. Laurie helped the News-Register win this prestigious award for the past nine consecutive years and 15 of the last 16. We tip our hat to her and vow to carry on her commitment to in-depth agricultural coverage.
This publication was also cited as the top newspaper among the state’s largest weekly publications, which again is a tribute to our staff. We now have a mix of long-time veterans and relative newcomers, including advertising manager Dave Bradley, production superintendent Marc Russell, composing staff members Karla Senff and Jill Bartling, advertising sales representative Dani Lemburg, production assistant Dave Adams, circulation staff member Bill Clements and reporter Steve Marik.
I’m also convinced that one of the main reasons this newspaper holds its own in statewide competition is that we are merely a reflection of a vibrant community. There is a lot going on in Hamilton County and it’s a privilege to bring you the news of the day, telling a local story that deserves to be told.
Kurt Johnson

Voter homework PDF E-mail

Nebraska’s primary election is just over a month away now, with several contested races to be decided on the local level.

The deluge of television commercials, mostly for U.S. Senate and Nebraska governor, leaves little doubt that voters will soon be asked to make some choices. That gets old in a hurry, frankly, though fortunately we don’t see that kind of overkill or negative campaigning here on the home front. Thank goodness.

In fact, candidates for local office typically run fairly low-profile campaigns, in essence letting people know they are ready and willing to serve. A lot of good folks have thrown their hat in the ring this year, and we applaud them for their willingness to help make a difference.

In an effort to let the voting public learn a little more about who is running, and why, the News-Register will launch a series of pre-election profile articles beginning next week. Considering the fact that many voters will fill out their ballots early and drop them in the mail, the time is right to do a little homework.

April 16 -- First up on the calendar is a look at the proposal to build a new city hall in Hampton. The village board is asking Hampton residents to give a thumbs up or down on a plan to demolish an aging city hall and replace it on the same spot with a new city hall and maintenance/storage facility. If approved, the cost would be approximately $700,000.

April 23 -- Three races for Hamilton County Commissioner will appear on the Republican ballot in May. Ivan Hongsermeier is challenging Tim Bergen in Dist. 5, with the winner to face Democrat Roger Nunnenkamp in November; Richard Nelson is challenging Wally Driewer in Dist. 2; and Becky Richter is challenging Doug Andersen in Dist. 1.

April 30 -- A field of eight candidates seeking three spots on the Aurora 4R School Board will be narrowed to six in the primary. The field includes incumbents Sue Mitchell and Pat Shaw, along with challengers Christine Bellis, Cyndi Muilenburg, Daniel Pachta, Jacy Todd, Cory Ohlson and Scott Scheierman.

Also on April 30, we’ll ask Marquette village leaders to explain how revenues would be used if voters there approve keno gambling. No other local races will appear on the primary ballot, thanks to a new auto-advance policy in Nebraska.

We tip our hat to the men and women seeking public office, and urge voters to take the time to make informed decisions.

Kurt Johnson

No vote needed PDF E-mail

The Hamilton County Law Enforcement Center serves a critical function in our community and is in dire need of an expansion/remodeling project now being proposed.

There can be little argument, really, if you take a look around the 42-year-old facility that officers with the Sheriff’s Department, Aurora Police Department and Nebraska State Patrol need more space to do their jobs. A structure initially built to accommodate eight officers and a jail now houses as many as 30 officers in extremely cramped quarters.

In addition to serious security concerns, there are issues involving handicap accessibility, privacy for investigations/interviews, safe prisoner movement/transportation, storage and workflow efficiency. The simple conclusion is that more space is needed, sooner than later.

County commissioners have been talking about this concept since October, offering more specific detail in public meetings since February. The estimated cost has gone up several times, which is normal for any kind of home or office renovation project. The final price tag comes in at an estimated $900,000.

It was decision time last week, and the decision to go forward was made based on the obvious need for more space. It was a good decision.

On the funding issue, commissioners contemplated whether to put the question to a vote of the people or use statutory authority and issue a levy of up to 5 cents on tax obligation bonds.

Though normally we support public input whenever possible, it made more sense in this case to move ahead without a public vote. This is not new construction, nor is it an extravagant renovation plan. The project will solve immediate needs and should serve the community for decades to come.

Taxpaying citizens have been alerted to this project for several months and few if any have offered feedback or concerns. With interest rates as low as they are, delaying the project for a vote would have cost at least one construction season, and more if voters said no. That would only have raised the cost of work that must be done.

As for the city’s involvement, paying 40 percent of the bill seems appropriate, though there could have and should have been more public discussion about where that money will come from. Just a year ago auditors were reporting that paying for the new swimming pool would stretch the city’s resources to the limit, and yet funding a needed, though unexpected, $350,000 portion of the LEC expansion was approved without breaking a sweat. That deserves better explanation.

Bottom line: This project makes sense for Aurora and Hamilton County and should go forward as planned.

Kurt Johnson

Nature’s wonder PDF E-mail

It’s an annual spring tradition like no other. Captivating sights; almost deafening sound; and moments that take your breath away.

The March mania I’m referring to has nothing to do with basketball, and in fact is the exact opposite of madness. It’s the annual migration of an estimated 500,000 sandhill cranes, a spectacle that is both serene in its beauty and magnificent as a multisensory experience.

The parking lot at the Rowe Sanctuary on Sunday evening offered a snapshot of this spectacle’s broad appeal. There were license plates from Louisiana, Wyoming, Illinois, Colorado and Wisconsin, and a women in my group was a native of India. They all came to see the live version of something you might expect to watch on the Nature Channel, though television couldn’t do this experience justice.

In just two short hours, you get a clear and sincere sense of the mission, which is a combination of conservation and education. The Audobon Society, Rowe Sanctuary and Crane Trust have created a partnership focused on protecting the natural habitat and teaching any and all about its vital role in these birds’ existence. You don’t have to be a birdwatcher to appreciate what’s unfolding before your eyes.

We saw thousands and thousands of birds drawn to the river Sunday, but four birds in particular stole the show at our particular venue. Bald eagles are a sight to see themselves, though the sandhill cranes consider them predators. Wave after wave after wave of cranes would approach to land, then swoop away, alerting each other to the danger lurking nearby. It was both fascinating and frustrating for rookie “birders” like me, but just another day in the life for cranes on the Platte.

Nature lovers from literally all over the world converge on the Platte River Valley each year to see for themselves this annual phenomenon. Area residents can see the birds gathering in corn fields between here and Grand Island every day this time of year, so we grow accustomed to their stopover as though it happens everywhere.

It does not, of course. Decades of study by the National Audobon Society and other wildlife organizations have documented that a 70-mile stretch of the Platte River is the one and only place these graceful birds seek sanctuary in their long journey. They are headed from Texas, New Mexico and Oklahoma to breeding grounds further north in Canada and on into Siberia, but their stopover here is vital to survival as they gather strength for the rest of their journey.

It’s a pit stop worth watching.

Kurt Johnson

Transparency PDF E-mail

We welcome the sunshine this week, and not just in anticipation of spring.

This is National Sunshine Week, a nationwide initiative designed to promote a dialogue about the importance of open government and freedom of information. It’s a topic that may seem more focused on the halls of Congress and the Oval Office in Washington, but in fact it’s a premise ever so important to life right here in Aurora, Hamilton County and across Nebraska.

Our government, by design, is intended to be of the people, for the people and by the people. Transparency in what our elected officials are doing on our behalf is critical at all levels, but as we know from recent events in Washington citizens aren’t always told the whole story.

Nebraska has fairly strong open meetings and public records laws, as compared to many other states. We also have local officials who generally understand those laws, though there are still times they would no doubt prefer not to have public discussion about controversial issues or decisions. Nebraska law simply doesn’t allow that, fortunately.

I recall an experience in Huron, S.D., early in my career when the mayor and city council knowingly conducted business is an illegal meeting. I wrote about the violation in that week’s editorial, assuming local citizens would engage in the process, and was told in no uncertain terms by the city administrator to look the other way. “You and I both know that open meetings law is just an exercise in futility,” he said. The “old boy network” had worked for years in that area, and it seemed obvious to me the community suffered a severe lack of trust and cooperation because of it.

That’s not the attitude here. The News-Register generally receives willing cooperation when covering the area’s elected officials in local schools, city and county government, as well as area villages. It’s one of our most important roles, frankly, because in most cases we’re the only media outlet in the room working to share information with interested citizens.

There has been significant change in the media business in recent years, starting with the internet and more recently with email communication and social media reporting. Those tools can help spread news more quickly, but there are reports in some states where elected officials are communicating on public issues via email or text, in effect hiding important dialogue from those who may want to hear the debate. That’s a disturbing trend that will only erode the public’s trust over time.

It takes diligence and a genuine willingness to comply with the spirit and letter of the law for government to run openly. National Sunshine Week reminds us how important it is to enlighten and empower people to play an active role in their government at all levels, and for elected officials to give access to information that makes their lives better and communities stronger.

Kurt Johnson

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