COMMENTARY: County official doesn’t think key records serve a public interest. Do you agree?

Les Zaitz, editor and publisher, Malheur Enterprise.

Greg Smith doesn’t believe that certain government records about Malheur County’s economic development operation are any use to the public.

I’d like your opinion on that, but first here’s the situation.

As we’ve reported, Malheur County wants to go into the industrial park business, developing properties in Nyssa around the Treasure Valley Reload Center. The county put economists and engineers and others to work to map out the project and estimate the costs.

What did that work cost the public?

The Enterprise requested records about the contractor assignments and what they charged. We also asked that the fee for getting that government information be dropped, which state law allows.

Nothing doing, according to Smith, who is director of the Malheur County Economic Development Department. He wouldn’t relent on charging $105 to see documents about those contractor costs – which are themselves covered by public money.

“It is not clear that the information you request will directly impact, affect, or serve an identified interest of the general public,” Smith wrote last week.

The Enterprise also asked for the one-page monthly reports that the county has to turn in to the state Transportation Department, showing progress on the Treasure Valley Reload Center project.

And again, Smith saw no reason to drop his agency’s fees to provide that information. He didn’t see how such information would serve the public.

And then we asked for specific records regarding his agency’s dealings with Oregon Eastern Railroad. This was our second request, after Smith recently provided a few records from 2017 and then said, “Our office never received….further correspondence.”

We contacted railroad officials to see if that was true and they provided correspondence that showed it wasn’t.

So, we asked the county for more public records to determine if Smith had fully disclosed all the relevant documents to the Enterprise.

Again, Smith said the newspaper would have to pay the full cost of getting such records. He repeated his view that the information, whatever it is, wouldn’t serve the public interest.

Thanks to generous readers and the “Dollars for Disclosure” fund, the Enterprise will pay the fees and wait for the documents.

But Smith’s position – that these records don’t benefit the public – stands in contrast to what he wrote early in February. He said the economic development agency already was making public the information that the Enterprise was seeking.

“We have remained vigilant in serving the public and make the information you request transparent and available to all the public,” Smith wrote.

“Our agency conducts numerous public meetings, ones which the public attend and obtain the very information you request.”

On Monday, Smith was asked to explain where the contractor costs – “the very information you request” – has been shared with the public.

We asked where the monthly reports were “available to all the public.”

He didn’t answer.

Trust me. If we could get county information without submitting public records requests, waiting weeks, and paying stiff fees, we would do so.

This is no small matter.

The Treasure Valley Reload Center is using $26 million in public money.

The industrial park projects will need another $12 million or so in county money to develop, and county officials haven’t yet said where they will get that.

Citizens in Malheur County have demonstrated great interest in these matters and deserve as much information as possible.

I invited Smith to more fully explain why he doesn’t think releasing his agency’s records serves the public interest. There has been no response.

So, what’s your opinion?

Is there an “identified interest of the general public” in getting the kind of information being sought by the Enterprise? Or should the records stay locked away, available only for a price?

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

PS: You can still contribute to “Dollars for Disclosure” to cover costs of getting Malheur County’s records. Go online to www.malheurenterprise.com/donate or by mail to Mailheur Enterprise, PO Box 310 Vale OR 97918.