COLUMN: Ontario city officials don’t care for a watchdog in their house

By Les Zaitz

The findings in our reporting were surprising.

With all the debate on the Ontario sales tax, we wanted to learn about the financial crisis city officials cited while seeking millions in new tax money.

I started where any citizen can go – Ontario’s city website. There, the city talked about how it had been “cutting, and cutting, and cutting.” The city said it reduced patrol officers and had no detective. There was “reduced fire personnel.”

At first blush, that seemed a grave threat to Ontario’s well-being. I count many in law enforcement at all levels as friends and indeed have officers in my family. Ensuring the public’s safety is as an essential function of government.

So, we started to dig in to see how bad it had become. We examined Ontario city budgets going back several years, no easy task. We sent questions to City Manager Adam Brown. We met with Brown and Mayor Ron Verini twice to get a full understanding.

The discoveries came one after the other.

Brown, asked for a report quantifying the need for more police officers, provided an excerpt from a 2014 document. He provided what appeared to be an alarming chart, showing Ontario was far more dangerous than other eastern Oregon cities. Brown noted the chart was for statistics from 2012.

Our next step seemed logical. If the city has lost police officers and crime was bad in 2012, what has happened since?

Frankly, I expected to find even worse news. I figured with fewer officers and a growing population, Ontario certainly must have suffered more violence, theft, and other criminal conduct.

Each year, the city files annual crime statistics with the state, all available online. It was a simple matter to locate each year’s report from 2012 and chart the results.

Did Ontario become a crime cesspool? No.

The city’s own data showed dramatic drops in violent crime, property crime and overall crime between 2012 and 2016. We asked the mayor and the city manager about them. They were unaware, even though these were the city’s own information. We provided our numbers to Brown just to be sure. He didn’t dispute their accuracy.

Well, then, what about the number of officers?

Brown wrote that the last three budget cycles resulted in “reduced police force, no gang officers, reduced road patrol, no detectives.”

Turns out, the city reported to state officials that the number of sworn officers – those carrying badges – actually increased by one since 2012. And the city pays for a detective on a regional drug team.

Okay, so now we have overall crime going down and the number of officers increasing. What was Brown’s source to say the police staffing has been cut? Turns out, the cuts he was citing dated back as far as 2004.

We also discovered that while the city says it has been “cutting and cutting,” it has expanded some city services. Taxpayers now foot the bill of about $172,000 a year for community development, including new funding for a top staff job. That’s more than enough money to hire a police officer – or a detective. The city increased spending for its recreation program and for code enforcement. And in recent years it spent $40,000 a year on a closed golf course.

This all was important information to give readers context about the city’s case for $3.3 million in new taxes.

Before the Enterprise published its story, Brown and Verini received excerpts so we could be sure we were accurate. Brown questioned only one statement, and we modified it as a result. We provided the city every opportunity to address our findings and ensure accuracy. I doubt city officials ever have had a news organization do so as thoroughly as we did.

The result? Ontario city government has gone on the attack against us.

Brown in a column as much as called us liars, suggesting we had created a “completely untruthful picture.” He was critical of using data since 2012. Remember, though, it was Brown himself who cited statistics from that very year to justify the need for more police.

He was invited to submit a column or identify any factual errors in our report. He has done neither. Verini publicly said there was “flawed information.” He was invited to identify any factual error in our report. He hasn’t.

Councilor Dan Capron publicly said there were “misstated facts.” He was invited to identify any factual error. He hasn’t.

Councilor Marty Justus publicly said we used something other than “true and accurate facts.” He was invited to identify any factual error. He said the newspaper reported the city has a detective when it doesn’t but then he added: “It is my understanding that the officers assigned to the High Desert Task Force are called detectives.”

We’re accustomed to criticism, and expect it when publishing tough stories.

Citizens should be troubled that these government voices are attacking the press for daring to ask difficult questions and challenge the government’s information. We could be silent and obediently accept what the government tells us.

We won’t. Our community expects us to be a watchdog, not a lapdog. We won’t be cowed no matter how inflammatory or false the claims by these government officials. Oh, it’d be easy for us to look the other way and who would know?

We would. We intend always to question government conduct. That is, after all, why the First Amendment enshrines freedom of the press. We’ll keep asking the hard questions on behalf Malheur County citizens. Meantime, we hope you ponder a question of your own: Why are these Ontario city officials so determined to control the information you get?

Les Zaitz is editor and publisher of the Enterprise. Contact: [email protected].