COMMENTARY: Help us break down the wall of silence in Malheur County affairs

Getting facts from Malheur County officials about public business is getting expensive.

We could use your help.

At the Enterprise, our news team has been dogged about tracking the county’s foray into industrial development.

As they say, we follow the money. And that’s not easy.

The Malheur County commissioners have taken a vow of silence. Judge Dan Joyce, and Commissioners Larry Wilson and Don Hodge, unhappy with the Enterprise’s reporting, now don’t talk to our reporters or respond to written questions.

Greg Smith, the county’s economic development director, too has gone silent.

That is their right. No law requires a public official to answer media questions.

To get around that wall of silence, we’ve had to get creative on the behalf of local citizens.

Let me share what’s been going on.

Malheur County officials want to put up one and maybe two industrial parks in Nyssa. This is in addition to the Treasure Valley Reload Center that the state is funding.

The land the county wants to use is bare farmland. Transforming that into industrial base requires new streets and new services such as sewer and water.

The county has indicated in its documents – that we obtained from the state – that developing this project could require as much as $14 million beyond $2 million it has already borrowed.

Where’s the county going to get that money? We’ve been trying to find out for you for more than two months.

On Nov. 1, reporter Pat Caldwell sent questions to Greg Smith, the county’s economic development director, including: “Once the Farmer property is bought, where will the money come from for water, sewer, streets?”

 Smith didn’t answer.

On Nov. 7, Caldwell sent questions to Malheur County Judge Dan Joyce about the county going into debt to buy farmland and about plans to buy a second piece of industrial ground in Nyssa.

Caldwell wrote: “The cost of getting sewer, water and natural gas services to the Nyssa Industries property was estimated at $5.3 million. Where do you expect Malheur County to get the money?”

Joyce didn’t answer.

On Dec. 12, Caldwell individually emailed Joyce, Hodge and Wilson. He asked about the $14 million listed on government forms as coming from “Malheur County” to develop one industrial park. “What is the intended source of this money from the county budget?” Caldwell asked.

Joyce didn’t respond.

Wilson didn’t respond.

Hodge didn’t respond.

At a public hearing in late December, Wilson suggested to the public that he had no idea where the Enterprise came up with the $14 million figure. We sent him a copy of the county’s own paperwork with that information but he didn’t respond to our questions.

Public interest in this is high, judging by meeting participation and other measures. Local citizens want to understand the money side of this – and what they get out of these deals.

The Enterprise crew has relied on the public records law to get records that help tell the story.

We have paid dearly. Smith’s agency in 2019 made the Enterprise pay a total of $1,018 before releasing public documents in 12 requests.

On Dec. 30, we submitted another request to Smith, attempting to find out what was behind the $14 million figure and other details. A week later, Smith confirmed he had the records we wanted – but it would cost $300 to get them. (His company is paid $15,000 a month to run the county agency.)

As a veteran of public records fights, we see this as Malheur County’s attempt to blunt our reporting by making it too costly to seek government records.

The law allows government agencies to reduce or entirely waive the cost of providing documents when releasing them serves the public interest. We have asked Smith for that waiver with every request. He has ignored the request and the law in each instance. We paid.

If Smith thought he would price us out of the business of finding the truth, he miscalculated.

And here’s where you come in.

These records fees are a big expense for a small outfit like the Enterprise. Unlike county officials, we don’t have a deep public treasury to dip into. When we pay for public information, that means some other need of our news operation goes unmet.

So, we are announcing “Dollars for Disclosure.”

We’re asking citizens to donate for a public records fund. We’ll use the money to dig deeper, to keep requesting records, to pay the county’s fees and perhaps pay for legal help to fight county secrecy.

You can join this effort by donating online by clicking HERE. You can send a check made out to the Malheur Enterprise, marked for the Disclosure Fund (PO Box 310, Vale OR 97918).

Even $10 would help, and a lot of small donations would be another message to county officials: the public wants the truth. The more we raise, the more we can do.

If you want to be listed as a partner in Dollars for Disclosure, let us know. Note, however, that this is not like a charity donation.

With your support, we’ll pursue more government records, using our journalistic expertise and outside legal talent to keep going until we all know what the county is up to.

Les Zaitz is editor and publisher of the Enteprise. Email: [email protected].