Citizens call for audit of Malheur County department, commissioner sees no reason

VALE – Area residents want elected leaders to conduct an audit of the Malheur County Economic Development Department, but such an action is unnecessary, said Malheur County Commissioner Larry Wilson.

Last month, the Enterprise called for the Malheur Count Court to hire a third-party auditor to review the economic development department after a series of articles by the newspaper on its director, Greg Smith, raised questions about its operations.

Wilson, though, said an audit would be expensive and a waste of time.

“We don’t see any reason for one,” said Wilson.

Wilson said Smith retains the full confidence of the county court.

“We are very satisfied with what he has done. He is hired on a contract to do a job for us. He has parameters and expectations,” said Wilson.

The Malheur County court consists of Wilson, County Judge Dan Joyce and Commissioner Don Hodge.

The county inked a contract with Smith’s firm, Gregory Smith and Company, in 2013. The county currently pays Greg Smith and Company $15,000 a month for economic development services.

Of that, $6,000 is to manage the Treasure Valley Reload Center, a proposed rail shipping center in Nyssa.

Previous reporting by the Enterprise, though, showed Smith is also working on a similar rail project in Linn County but at no charge. Smith hasn’t responded to questions about the matter.

County officials said they didn’t know about the Smith’s work on the Albany project when they agreed to award his firm an extra $72,000 for 2019 and set aside another $50,000 for rail expenses.

A public records request show emails to Joyce seeking an audit of the county’s economic development arm.

“My wife and I have been following the Vale Enterprise articles about Greg Smith’s reign as chief economic development person for the county. Their articles have pointed out that there is a significant problem within the county and more specifically the employment of Greg Smith’s company as Malheur County’s economic development leader. We would ask that you hire an outside firm to perform an audit of the economic development department going back to 2013,” Tom Ady wrote in a June 13 email.

The next day Joyce wrote back that “I would welcome a visit with you anytime we can fit it into your schedule.”

Ady, though, declined to meet because he was out of the area.

“It’s rare that we stick our noses into something, but this scenario was really interesting. It’s always troubling to read and hear about companies and people that may be sticking it to the public,” Ady wrote back to Joyce.  

Kris Davis and Judith Haley also emailed Joyce asking that an audit be performed. Suzan & Keith Jones – Baker County ranchers with property in Malheur County – also reached out to Joyce.

“We pay property taxes in Malheur County. We have read about the issues with Greg Smith. It is very concerning as this is not the first time there have been questions about Smith’s business activities. As property owners in Malheur County, we would like to see an independent forensic audit as suggested by the Vale newspaper, for the entirety to his contract with Malheur County,” wrote the Jones.

Wilson said when the Enterprise editorial was printed, the court discussed the audit question briefly.

“When we talked about it, it was not only no, but hell no. We don’t need to waste the money. I can tell you there wasn’t even a second thought we needed one,” said Wilson.

Wilson said, though, that the audit question produced questions from voters.

“It stirred people up all right because I got asked about it a lot around the community,” said Wilson.

Wilson said he followed up with the Adys, leaving a phone message, but then ran into Tom Ady at Fiesta Guadalajara in Ontario not long after and discussed the issue with them.

“I don’t want to be accused of not following up,” said Wilson.

Wilson said he thought “Dan or Greg addressed the lady (Suzan Jones) from Baker.”

He said he was unsure if Joyce or Hodge reached out to the other people who emailed in support of the audit.

Wilson said the court “don’t understand why anybody would even request that right now.”

Seen by some as a major economic game-changer, onions will be trucked into the proposed Nyssa facility and loaded onto trains for faster shipment across the country.

The funding for the project comes from House Bill 2017, a massive transportation plan approved by the Oregon Legislature two years ago. A seven-member, nonprofit board – the Malheur Economic Development Corp., – was appointed by the county court to oversee the project.

Grant Kitamura, president of the Malheur Economic Development Corp., said he doesn’t see any need for an audit.

“Why? I don’t see anything suspicious at all. Greg is pretty transparent with me and the group,” said Kitamura. Kitamura is also a managing partner at Baker & Murakami Produce in Ontario.

According to the county, the center would cut costs for onion growers and shippers by about $2 million a year. The center is projected to employ seven people year-around and up to 19 seasonal workers, according to the county.

A state analysis, though, showed local onion producers likely won’t get faster or cheaper shipping service than they have now if the rail center is built.

County officials expected a green light for the facility from the state by January. But access to state money to build the facility has been delayed for months over lingering questions about the project’s sustainability.

Late last month, state officials appeared ready to reject the proposal but decided to give supporters more time to answer questions about rail service costs, shipping prices, provide a business plan and furnish proof the facility will carry a sustainable customer base. Supporters of the rail project were directed to provide answers to those questions by July 12.

The next step comes Thursday, when the Oregon Transportation Commission is scheduled to make a final decision on the project.

Wilson said he feels the project is “in good shape this time,” and he believes the state will OK the funds for the project.

“We’ve been in constant contact with them,” said Wilson.

News tip? Reporter Pat Caldwell: [email protected] or 541-473-3377.