EDITORIAL: Strong credentials needed for Malheur County citizens to lead economic work

Citizens, business and local government have a great new opportunity to control the future of Malheur County. We need to make the best of the money and power granted by state officials to power the local economy.

State Rep. Cliff Bentz of Ontario deserves all the applause he is getting for nurturing, sheltering and advocating this work. He led the way to get $26 million appropriated for a new rail shipping depot. He worked side by side with House Speaker Tina Kotek for novel legislation granting Malheur County special economic development powers.

Getting legislative authority is just the first step. Now, the community has to work hard to see this chance isn’t squandered. That’s going to take strong leadership, focus on the future, and collaboration that sets aside parochial interests.

The Malheur County Court has a big job ahead. County Judge Dan Joyce and Commissioners Don Hodge and Larry Wilson will recommend to Gov. Kate Brown who should sit on the Eastern Oregon Border Economic Development Board. The commissioners also will have to figure out how to manage the rail depot, perhaps creating a stand-alone business with an appointed board.

Now’s the time to think about who should be picked for either enterprise. The county should move carefully and openly. The first task is to define what talents and skills are needed on these boards. Both will be challenging roles. This is not the place for resume-builders or a popularity contest.

Once the county commissioners decide the kind of talent needed, they should establish qualifications for the boards. An open application process should ensue. Applications that are submitted ought to be public, and the process of interviewing applicants should be as well. This will help build trust and confidence from the start.

What are some the key skills needed? Here’s a starting list:

MONEY KNOW-HOW: Nothing will be as important to the success of these projects as having people who understand finances and accounting. We will need people who truly understand how to read a profit-and-loss statement, who understand where to look for red flags. This will take people with experience in both private finance – think bankers – and those with special expertise in public finance – think city managers.

INNOVATION: This is not the place for those who pine for the “good old days.” These projects will require the best thinking we can muster to be sure we are leaning into the future. We will need people who don’t fear innovation – doing something new or changing what’s always been done. These projects will benefit from service of those who can look 5, 10, 20 years down the road and ask: What’s best for Malheur County?

PRINCIPLES: This could easily turn into a political free-for-all. Some with supposed community clout and reputations could feel a sense of entitlement. Or those with specific interests may angle for a seat to safeguard those interests. Instead, the county commissioners need to be finely attuned to motivations. This effort requires people who can think broadly about all interests even if their expertise comes from one interest. The onion industry, for instance, needs a seat. But that seat should be filled by someone who can see beyond the end of a storage shed.

WORKERS: These boards are not for those who expect to attend a meeting once a month, reading agenda material 30 minutes before the session. These boards need those who have shown no fear of hard work, with a record of accepting and executing responsibility. This will function best if those selected to serve are known to be attentive to detail, for doing their homework.

Strong boards will give our community the best chance to get that rail depot going, to boost the economy, and to fashion changes to government regulation to create businesses, employment, housing and training. The eyes of Oregon will be upon us. We asked for special treatment. We got it. Now, let’s show them we deserve it. – LZ