EDITORIAL: Local development board needs to double down on transparency

When suspicions of government take root, they are hard to dig out. The Malheur County Development Corp. must be mindful of that in its handling of $26 million in taxpayer money set aside for a new rail shipping center.

The Malheur County Court created the public company and tasked it with managing the shipping center project. The public company, with seven people on its board, has the duty to decide where to build the rail center, what contractors to hire, and who gets to use the center.

The company has made its first big decision, picking land outside Nyssa for the rail center. At such a center, producers would truck in onions and other goods to be loaded onto rail cars for the run to markets in the East. Shipping from Malheur County lowers the cost of our onions and other produce, making them more affordable and more attractive to buy.

The development company is an unusual beast. While created by county government, it is an independent corporation and not obviously a government body. That has blurred issues of accountability.

Suspicions have formed over how the development company picked Nyssa. Ontario city officials, aggrieved at the process, are miffed they weren’t notified of board meetings. They went so far as to bring a lawyer in to sharpen the point, challenging the company over its meeting conduct. The county’s lawyer, Stephanie Williams, acknowledged that the development company’s own by-laws say that Malheur County Development will comply with the law requiring open meetings.

That’s no small thing. Government boards and councils can, by law, go behind closed doors to do some of their business. But those instances are supposed to be few. Rather, in Oregon, we expect government boards to conduct most of their business in public view. Closed doors can those outside wondering what happened.

Ontario’s protests could leave the impression something is amiss, and that should concern those on the development board. The board should work doubly hard to operate openly for Ontario officials and anyone else to observe.

That goes for the development company’s records, as well. In our view, the development company’s records are no different than records held by county department or a city agency – they are public. There should be no hint that the development company is being too restrictive with access. We’ll note that Greg Smith, its managing officer, willingly shared with the Enterprise pages and pages of records consulted by the board as it decided where to locate the center.

The board faces another transparency issue. Some in the community, including business leaders and Ontario officials, questioned why Nyssa was picked. Board members could easily clear up the questions. But with one exception, development board members have dodged explaining why they voted as they did. The exception was Lynn Findley, the just-retired city manager from Vale, who has unflinchingly answered questions about the choices. Others on the board should follow Findley’s lead, providing open and full explanations in the future for major decisions. Buttoned lips leave doubt: Why the silence?

Those on the development company board are seasoned executives focusing hard on bringing an economic boon to Malheur County. That is their prime duty. The directors need to remember, though, that public faith in their actions will rest on how open they are about that duty. The board should adopt a statement of principles declaring its commitment to openness, removing any doubt and quashing any suspicions. — LZ