EDITORIAL: Malheur County’s punt to governor warrants new try

No other area of the state has what Malheur County has – special privilege to recommend changes to state law and policies that impede economic development. The eyes of the rest of Oregon will be on us to see how we use that privilege. Our first step out, though, wasn’t the best start.

The Oregon Legislature this year created a new economic district for that part of Malheur County bordering Idaho. State Rep. Cliff Bentz of Ontario teamed up with House Speaker Tina Kotek to usher through this extraordinary opportunity. They even managed to snag $5 million in state money at a time the state is low on cash. Gov. Kate Brown supported the effort, one of several gestures she has made to our region this year.

Here’s what is supposed to happen. The governor will appoint a seven-person board to run the effort. The board will look at laws and regulations imposed by the state to see what is binding up progress in Malheur County. A lot of effort is expected to focus on land-use regulation. But there also will be work to assess education, the labor force and other regulation. The board may highlight where there are stark differences between Oregon mandates and the supposedly more relaxed rules across the border in Idaho.

In addition, the board will propose investments to improve labor training and education and can make grants and loans.

This is a big job with big implications for the area’s future.

First, though, we have to get the board in place. Under the law, the Malheur County Court is to nominate “eligible” individuals for the governor to consider. Nominees are expected to include those who have expertise in trade, education, workforce development or economic development. Otherwise, the law doesn’t specify qualifications.

As might be expected, a lot of people want a seat at this table. The city managers of Vale, Ontario and Nyssa got together to produce their own recommendations to the County Court about who should get these coveted and vital board appointments. And then the county commissioners – Judge Dan Joyce, and Commissioners Don Hodge and Larry Wilson – came up with their own lists.

In a process that’s not clear, the commissioners combined all the lists and narrowed the names – to 25 nominees. That’s roughly three people for each board seat. There are a few problems with this.

The County Court was never explicit with the public about what it wanted to see in qualifications for this board. The County Court didn’t do a very pronounced job of letting citizens know the slots were open and welcome anyone in the community to apply. The commissioners left that up to three city councils. That makes the process seem a little too in-house – that you had to be a known name or have big enough elbows to crowd your way into line. That risks leaving out qualified people.

The County Court then wasn’t clear on how it arrived at the list of 25. What sort of discussions went on, if any? Or was it just a process of adding every name that came across the transom? There is no sense the County Court thought through what was needed to make this board effective and who in the community was best suited to make it so. The County Court didn’t determine who was “eligible,” as the law required.

And the list included people that probably shouldn’t be on there. This is no slam on them. Rather, it’s recognition of what a big job faces this board. The County Court decided to nominate one of its own, Larry Wilson, potentially taking a seat away from another deserving appointee. We tend to think that public officials ought to hold only one high-profile public post at a time.

The County Court’s actions suggest the commissioners couldn’t make the hard choices, to whittle down the list to the recommended choices. Instead, they punted to the governor, expecting her to paw through the long list to figure out who should get appointed and who shouldn’t. But the commissioners presumably know better than a governor sitting on the other side of the state who best merits one of those seven seats. The County Court should have taken the duty given to it and sent the governor a more focused, justified list of nominees. By sending Brown a long list, Malheur County is left looking like we aren’t taking this new opportunity seriously. This is too important for our area’s future to whiff so early. The County Court should advise the governor it is withdrawing the list and return with a more focused list with nominees supported by reasons for their selection. — LZ