EDITOR’S NOTE: Citizens not happy with the conduct of Malheur County government officials

Les Zaitz, editor and publisher, Malheur Enterprise.

The people of Malheur County aren’t happy with county officials.

That’s clear in the emails and social media posts that flowed Friday after we shared the county’s latest tactic to block access to the truth.

County officials on Friday told the Enterprise that records the newspaper had been seeking for a month would be ready – but getting them would take $400.

The county didn’t issue an invoice, which seems contrary to government accounting rules. We tried to find someone in county government on Friday that could get us the bill so we could pay the cost and get the records.

We emailed County Judge Dan Joyce and Commissioners Larry Wilson and Don Hodge. “Get us the invoice and we’ll use money donated to us by your constituents to pay the bill,” we messaged.

Joyce didn’t respond.

Wilson didn’t respond.

Hodge didn’t respond.

We emailed the Malheur County Economic Development Department. No response.

We emailed the county counsel. No response.

We emailed the county’s executive assistant, getting an automatic response that she was out.

We emailed the county administrator, getting an automatic response that she was out.

We called and left a message at the county economic development office. No response.

We called and left a message with Greg Smith, the county’s economic development director. No response.

The documents sought by the Enterprise should disclose where Malheur County is going to get millions to put into its own industrial park. We’re not asking to be a nuisance. This involves public money and county government’s duty is to be open and honest with citizens.

Many of you were outraged or offended by the county government’s conduct.

A sampling of remarks:

“So, somebody doesn’t want the taxpayer commoners to know the truth? It’s been my understanding you usually withhold information that’s public knowledge when you don’t want somebody to see something that’s in those documents.”

“So. Freaking. Ridiculous.”

“So wrong in more ways than I can count. They should be so ashamed.”

“People need to say enough is enough.”

County officials have used a growing array of tactics to stall the public’s access to the facts.

The tactic: Delay

Time after time, Malheur County’s economic development agency has waited until the very last moment to obey legal deadlines to disclose. In some cases, it failed to obey the deadlines set by law. Most government agencies release public records quickly.

Here’s the history of the one at issue now:

Dec. 30 – The Enterprise files a request with the county’s economic development department.

Jan. 7 – The agency says it has the records, but they will cost $300. The Enterprise agrees to pay.

Jan. 13 – Judge Joyce’s staffer writes: “I understand Economic Development is currently processing your request but it will take additional time to provide the records (approximately 7 more business days).  Some of the records are being gathered from the third-party contractor who assisted in writing the RSIS application.”

Jan. 21 ­– The legal deadline arrives for the county to disclose the records and the Enterprise hand delivers a $300 check to the courthouse. Nothing is released.

Jan. 27 – in its first communication on the request in three weeks, the economic development department writes: “The contractor says it will be Thursday or Friday of this week before we have the documents.”

 Jan. 31- Greg Smith writes: “The contractor continues to work on replies to this request. I spoke with him today and expects completion by end of work day” and then a couple of hours later, “Anderson Perry [a private engineering firm] had notified me the work has been completed on the request regarding the RSIS. Anderson Perry has quoted a billing of $400 to complete the request.” No invoice was provided.

The impact:

The Enterprise is blunted from getting facts about how the county will pay for its industrial park. That also blocks taxpayers from being fully informed about what the county is up to. And the county agency refuses to waive fees as provided by law, apparently concluding that disclosing the records to the Enterprise serves no public interest.

The tactic: Bring in more lawyers

The Enterprise sought records about which companies were interested in running the county’s new rail terminal. The county fended off the request, claiming the information was a trade secret. When the Enterprise contested the matter, the county brought in a private attorney, Brian DiFonzo of Yturri Rose, to justify the county’s insistence on secrecy. He is working for the county’s company, Malheur County Development Corp. More than likely, public money will be used to pay for DiFonzo’s work.

The impact:

County officials have unlimited access to lawyers. They don’t have to personally pay the legal bills. The public does. In contrast, the Enterprise is a small local business that can’t afford to match this growing cadre of lawyers serving the government. No one on our staff has a law degree – or access to the public treasury.

Tactic: Put the request on ice

Last month, the Enterprise sought records to reveal why Oregon Eastern Railroad of Vale was shut out of a local rail project and on the county’s intention to buy its own train engine. The county responded, “The request will be answered in a timely manner. However, at this time, “the staff or volunteers necessary to complete a response to the public records request are unavailable.”

The impact:

Legitimate questions about the county’s operations go unanswered because documents that would provide the information are being kept out of the hands of reporters and taxpayers. The county could now stall access for weeks, blocking citizens from getting the facts.

Those citizens are responding with their cash and checkbooks. Donations continue to flow to the Enterprise for “Dollars for Disclosure,” our fund to pay the cost of getting records from county government.

Last week, a retiree from Burns dropped by on her way through Vale. “Here’s $20 to help with your expense,” she wrote.

“Thank you for trying to keep honesty in our county over this matter. If it wasn’t for your paper, no one would know what is going on. I am behind you 100%,” said a handwritten note that came with a $100 personal check.

Because of that support, the Enterprise intends to hand deliver a check for $400 to the county courthouse first thing Monday.

We’ll keep you posted on whether that’s enough to pry public records from the clutch of county officials.

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

PS: Your subscription to our online service for $5 a month or a contribution to “Dollars for Disclosure” allows the Enterprise to do this work. Thanks to the many who have donated and given us the resources to carry on the pursuit of public records.