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EDITORIAL: Sister cities bring junkets and jokes, not economic development

It’s probably safe to speculate that few Loudoun residents have heard of Karsiyaka, Turkey. Or traveled there.

Same can be said about Main-Taunus-Kreis in Germany; Goyang City and Gangneung City in South Korea; New Taipei City in Taiwan; and the Shunyi District in China.

All lovely places to visit, we’re sure. The question is why county officials have traveled there on taxpayer tickets?

Phyllis Randall, the new chair of the Loudoun County Board of Supervisors, says she wants to see “more guidelines and clarity” on the benefits of the county’s sister cities. She’s talking about the passport of her predecessor, long-time board chair Scott York.

Go to the “sister county” page on the county’s website (loudoun.gov) and click on the links to Loudoun’s sister cities. You’ll find a York travelogue that doesn’t even include his jaunts abroad on economic development trips.

York is old news. Randall is wise to reset the rules of leadership. In the context of a $2.5 billion county budget, the travel costs associated with sister cities are relatively small. But the optics are bad at a time when the supervisors are ordering the school district to cut millions as they pontificate about fiscal restraint amid expanding debt.

The county’s website touts the “economic, cultural and student exchange” benefits of sister cities. But county officials can’t quantify the benefits of the relationships beyond vague puffery about economic development that would likely have occurred without sister city agreements.

Sister cities may have made sense in a bygone era when the world was disconnected. Peacemaking was the original goal when President Dwight Eisenhower started the Sister City Program in 1956. It was an effort after World War II to mend relations with German and Japanese cities ravaged by the war.

More recently, sister city relationships have come to be regarded as fodder for junkets or jokes. It seems that every city and county has multiple “sisters.” The most attractive ones are all taken, which may explain Loudoun’s choice of Gangneung City in South Korea.

Or perhaps Gangneung City’s choice of Loudoun.

We’re all for the economic and cultural benefits of working together on a global scale. That’s how today’s economy works. But we’re living on a small planet now. Connections are instantaneous. Almost anyone can create relationships and conduct business with people throughout the world.

When we are underwhelmed by the possibility of doing something, it is said to be like “kissing your sister,” meaning that it is no special thing. Sister cities are an anachronism. There’s no need to pay for a kiss anymore.

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