By Pat Caldwell
ONTARIO – As soon as Cliff Bentz saw the seemingly explosive email last week, he picked up the phone.
Bentz, an Ontario attorney who represents Malheur County in the Oregon House, called Ontario Mayor Ron Verini and City Manager Adam Brown.
He needed answers.
He had a copy of an email that suggested Ontario city officials were planning to disrupt the effort to site a rail shipping center in Nyssa.
The email was written by Greg Smith, the county’s economic development director. According to the message, obtained by the Malheur Enterprise, Smith said he had been told the Ontario city manager planned to write state officials about “disappointment in the process” and that the application for state money for the project “be rejected.”
The email jolted those gingerly working their way through the political landscape to bring to reality a rail shipping plant now destined for Nyssa. At risk, it seemed, was a unified community approach to helping the region’s agriculture industry.
Smith said in his email that officials could either plunge ahead or start the process over, delaying by up to a year the time when onion farmers could load their goods on eastbound rail cars. An aggressive timeline announced recently would have the rail center running in about two years.
Smith’s message particularly alarmed Bentz. He was instrumental in crafting a multimillion-dollar state transportation package during the last legislative session. The package included $26 million in state money for the rail reload center.
With Smith out of the country and unavailable, Bentz called Ontario City Hall.
“I’ve learned to go and talk to the people involved and not believe everything you read,” Bentz said.
Last week, over lunch, Bentz pushed the email over to the mayor and city manager, asking if it was true. They were floored by what they read. They said no, it wasn’t true.
Verini said in a later interview that the city never intended to get the Oregon Transportation Commission to intercede and force the process to start over.
“There was a misunderstanding. It is as simple as that,” Verini said. “What we were going to do, if we send a letter at all, will be as a letter of thanks and congratulations to our local people because it was a tough decision to make.”
Brown said he thinks the misunderstanding emerged from a conversation he had days earlier with Smith about meeting records of the development company.
He said he told Smith the city might reach out to the state officials “imploring them to consider additional information in their decision. We never said we were going to ask them to reject MCDC’s application.”
Bentz said Verini and Brown made it clear the city favors the Nyssa location chosen by the Malheur Economic Development Corp., the public company set up by county officials.
“They are totally supportive of the board conclusion and they will be working carefully with the board as a fall back location in case there turns out to be a fatal flaw in the Nyssa location. If something doesn’t work out for whatever reason we have an immediate fall back to the Ontario location,” said Bentz.
Verini said he had “no clue” where Smith picked up the notion Ontario city officials intended to be obstructionists.
“I think it is all straightened out,” said Verini. “We are definitely on board.”
The dust up came just days after Verini and Brown publicly complained about the selection process. They said the city wasn’t notified of meetings held by the development company and that they should have been more involved in the choice. The city also filed a public records request with the development company, seeking disclosure of meeting notices and other records.
“We were somewhat disappointed with the process, but, you know, it really didn’t make a tremendous amount of difference where the location was, just as long as it was located in our general vicinity,” said Verini.
Have a news tip? Contact reporter Pat Caldwell at [email protected] or 541-473-3377.