EDITORIAL: Malheur County judge must take stand for honesty

Citizens deserve honesty in their government day in and day out. Sadly, trust in public officials and agencies has faded. Those who control government bear much of the blame, and that’s true here in Malheur County.

In our democracy, citizens install other citizens into public office, trusting they will serve the common interest. “The whole art of government consists in the art of being honest,” said Thomas Jefferson.

As citizens, we must trust that those in government will obey the law as they expect us to do. We must trust that those in power will use their government positions fairly, treating every citizen as equal. We must trust that they will use tax money wisely, not to the benefit of cronies or foolish acts. And we must trust that those in government tell the truth about public affairs, avoiding contortions or political sleights of hand.

We must trust that this is so because of the power we hand those in public office. They control the day-to-day levers of government. They access confidential information to inform choices. They are empowered to act for the citizenry without consultation or vote.

All of that rests on a foundation of truth and that has grown shaky. We have more citizens than ever doubting government. We as an electorate increasingly stay away from elections, probably because we see no use to voicing our opinions. And when trust is eroded, the ability to govern ourselves weakens. Finding solutions to common issues becomes more challenging. We doubt what we are told. We wonder whether public officials act from self-interest instead of community interest. That self-interest can be as innocent as just wanting to be liked out on the street to the corrupting act of steering government business to family and friends.

Three years ago, a national survey found that 86% thought that honesty in government was the most important issue to the future of our country. That cut across all generations – from seniors to millennials.

In Malheur County government, the primary guardian of trust is County Judge Dan Joyce. He has served in county offices for more than 20 years. As county judge, he leads the county court and county government. Above any public official, he has the duty and obligation to safeguard the public interest. He has the power and the position to assure government is functioning properly, honestly and in keeping with local directives.

That’s why it is so surprising that Joyce has not been more public about addressing the erosion of trust occurring on his watch.

As the Malheur Enterprise reported last month, the county’s economic development agency flatly misled a local business seeking county help. No one has explained why, but an aide in that agency said that the company’s hope for tax relief was “awaiting a signature” from the state and that a document “was presented” to state officials. That wasn’t true.

Asked about the misstatements, Joyce responded in an email that he has “not commented” to the Enterprise, but said he had made public statements about the company. Earlier this month, though, Joyce told us he supported all the county’s actions in that instance. As for any action regarding that matter, he said simply then: “None required.”

Greg Smith, the county’s economic development director, has had his own trouble with the truth. He recently wrote, for instance, that the Malheur County Fair Board had “fired” the Enterprise. That was a lie. He wrote that the publisher of the Enterprise “started” his career in Los Angeles. That was a lie.

When Joyce was presented with Smith’s statements, he seemed to shrug: “It appears Mr. Smith is communicating in his personal capacity.” Huh? Smith is in a high-profile county role and that’s as much concern as Joyce can muster when told Smith made false statements?

Joyce should show more regard for his constituents than that. He insisted Tuesday by email that he has spoken out and that he has “taken action in these instances” without saying what he did. But Joyce needs to act more strongly and transparently, demonstrating that no dishonesty will be tolerated in Malheur County affairs.

Our president, Donald Trump, has said that he judges people “based on their capability, honesty and merit.” Joyce needs to do so as well. He can do the right thing for honest government or instead he can embrace cronyism that protects friends.      ­– LZ