EDITORIAL: Ontario Recreation District initiative jumps first hurdle with more to come

The creation of a recreation district offers great promise to the community. This isn’t a done deal, with a public vote now set for November. In the months ahead, supporters will have to sharpen their plans and recruit people for the board of what could be Malheur County’s newest government agency. 

The Malheur County Court last week made the right decision in pushing the green button to allow a public vote. On the ballot will be whether to form the Ontario Recreation District and tax property owners to fund it. 

As we’ve noted before, this idea isn’t something cooked up by government. This was born by the participation of citizens who saw a need. Ontario city officials decided they could no longer operate a recreation department as money tightens. They will keep their operation on financial life support through the end of this year so a recreation district would have something to take over. 

Ontario city officials did more, though, than cover payroll and other costs. They also volunteered to turn over to the new recreation agency key assets, including the now-shuttered aquatics center. That was a wise move, avoiding the notion of making taxpayers once again buy these properties. 

Meantime, local citizens need to raise their hand and run for the board of the recreation district. This is a bit tricky, since candidates would be seeking election to run an agency that itself may or may not be approved by voters. Nonetheless, candidates need to step up. 

Establishing a new government will require a variety of skills, and so the board should draw people with varied backgrounds. The board members, who would be the final authority for a new recreation district, clearly need to be invested in the value of community recreation programs. They should have a strong sense of how recreation is not a luxury, but a necessity in a community impaired by poverty. 

The new board will need people who understand finances and budgets. Being in favor of youth basketball is one thing. Deciding how to fund it and what’s appropriate spending for such a program, though, requires a comfort with numbers. 

The new board will need people of integrity. A lot of eyes would be on this board, assuming voters approve the district in the first place. The board members need a reputation for honesty. They need to be people who have the power to listen, and truly listen, to others. We need board members who see themselves as representing the entire community, not just a pet program that attracted their attention in the first place. 

This new board would set the policies and plans for the new district. Yet those supporting these recreation programs need to define as clearly as they can what they expect to happen if voters say yes in November. What youth programs would continue? What could be added? Who can participate and at what cost? 

And then there are the facilities. Would the district simply take over the city’s plan for revitalizing the aquatics center? Or would it take a hard second look at that plan to be sure it serves the community needs and doesn’t get too grandiose just because a new pot of tax money becomes available? There are questions, too, about the splash pad and the fate of the city’s dead golf course. 

And voters – those who live within the Ontario School District – shouldn’t be bashful about posing their own questions now. This started as a citizen drive and we expect citizens would be well heard by those leading the drive. Voters, though, need to clearly understand they would be choosing to tax themselves extra to make all this happen. They need to understand the bargain – what’s in it for taxpayers besides a place to send the kids?

– LZ