Rail deal forces recusal

By Pat Caldwell

The Enterprise

VALE – Malheur County Commissioner Larry Wilson is recusing himself from some decisions on a new rail shipping center because he is a shareholder in a company selling land to the county.

Wilson, a real estate broker, confirmed that he owns stock in Nyssa Industries. The company owns one of three properties chosen for a new rail center north of the Thunderegg Capital of the World.

Malheur County Development Corp., a public corporation set up by the county, will oversee the multimillion-dollar facility.

The corporation recently selected property along Arcadia Boulevard and adjacent to Union Pacific Railroad tracks just outside Nyssa city limits.

While the corporation will manage the construction of the facility, the county will buy the property for the facility. The site was recently selected and landowners have tentatively agreed to sales deals, though no details have been disclosed.

Wilson said he doesn’t know how many shares he owns in Nyssa Industries and that he hasn’t seen a cent from the company. Wilson said the shares pay no dividends.

Oregon law requires public officials to disclose any conflicts of interest, in which action by their agency could personally benefit them. The law generally requires officials take no actions on government business that creates the conflict.

Wilson said he told Greg Smith, the county’s economic development director, about his involvement with Nyssa industries “a long time ago….way back when they were looking at sites.”

Smith said there could be as many as four dozen shareholders in Nyssa Industries but he doesn’t know their identities.

According to state records, David Waldo of Waldo Insurance is the president of Nyssa Industries.

County assessor records show the biggest parcel is owned by Charles, James and Margaret Farmer of Nyssa. James Farmer of Fort Boise Produce in Nyssa was appointed to the development corporation board by the county court.

At a subsequent board meeting, he recused himself from decisions on the sale.

Nyssa Industries owns a 79-acre lot that it bought in 1960 and which adjoins the third property needed for the rail project, a 36-area lot is owned by Margo Bybee of Nyssa.

“I think most investors owned four or five shares. Many of the original certificates are probably lost. I don’t know how many shares my family owns and I doubt that Larry Wilson knows how many shares his family owns. The stock is widely held by Nyssa residents and former residents,” said Farmer.

The Nyssa site is one of eight considered by the development corporation.

Wilson, who operates Malheur Reality in Ontario, said he had no role in selecting the Nyssa land for the shipping center.

Smith said he recalled Wilson informing him of his stake in the company.

“It meant nothing to me. Because in the end it was up to the (Malheur Development) board to decide and none of that came up in our conversations,” said Smith.

Oregon law is specific regarding public officials and conflicts of interest. An elected leader must declare a conflict of interest publicly and the “nature of the potential conflict prior to taking any action theron in the capacity of a public official.”

An elected official can’t participate as a public official in any discussion nor debate on the issue and cannot vote on it.

A conflict of interest could occur for Wilson when the county court acts to buy the property. Wilson said, though, that he will declare his conflict and remove himself from any decision on the property.

“I will have to do that. That’s what I feel I have to do,” said Wilson.

Stephanie Williams, county counsel, said the county isn’t going to “split hairs” over actual and potential conflicts of interest and said Wilson won’t vote on anything connected to the rail facility if it comes before the court.

“He will have a conflict in the actual purchase of the Nyssa Industries. It doesn’t matter how remote,” said Williams.

The court is scheduled to consider on Dec. 20 adjusting an enterprise zone for one of the Nyssa properties being acquired for the project. However, the Nyssa Industries property is not part of the zone adjustment and Wilson won’t have to declare a conflict then.

An enterprise zone is designed to attract businesses to a specific area by providing an exemption from property taxes.

The site, which will also include a new industrial park, is situated along Arcadia Boulevard and adjacent to the Union Pacific Railroad tracks. The rail shipping center is seen by many as an economic game-changer for the county and will create an estimated 125 jobs. The state is providing $26 million in funding for the project, approved as part of a major transportation packaged approved by the Oregon Legislature last summer.