Malheur County Commissioner Larry Wilson, left, at the courthouse last year. (The Enterprise/File)
Election night held a stunning result – Larry Wilson, an Ontario real estate agent, lost his bid for a third term as Malheur County commissioner. And the result warrants close attention by all three county commissioners, for the message seems clear: You need to do better.
Wilson won his first race for commissioner in a three-way campaign in 2012. He had no Republican opponent four years later and 6,131 voters decided he should keep his part-time county job.
Last week, voters had decidedly turned against Wilson. He mustered less than 1,000 votes. Only one out of four Republican voters supported him. Three of four voted for either Ron Jacobs, who won the nomination, or Jim Mendiola. There is no other way to read the message from county Republicans to Wilson: You’re fired.
Why did they do that? Wilson hadn’t done anything particularly unusual or different from what County Judge Dan Joyce and Commissioner Don Hodge have done the past four years. They largely act in lockstep.
One topic dominated the county court’s conduct in recent years: the Nyssa rail development. We think it’s reasonable to interpret the election results as a judgment of how the entire Malheur County Court, not just Wilson, have handled these matters. And they haven’t done well.
Wilson took the lead for the county court to push the project. He was a tireless cheerleader. But the political pompoms obscured his vision and that of Joyce and Hodge. They became so thrilled with the idea of spending $26 million in public money they diminished their duty to be careful about that spending.
In fact, they have been reckless.
They bought bare farm land, only to make two crucial discoveries. First, they didn’t have enough money to pay for it. They had to strip nearly $1 million out of the county’s emergency fund to pay for the land. There was no emergency, except bungling over figuring out where the money would come from.
More troubling is the county paid $1 million more than the appraised value of the land. The commissioners have made lots of excuses about how, no, really this was a good deal. If anyone should have raised a red flag, it was Wilson, the veteran real estate agent. Far as anyone knows, none of the commissioners asked for any appraisal before shaking hands on the deal. No one buys million-dollar real estate like that.
And they have been inattentive to plans for a county-owned industrial park. This is a dream built upon hope. The county commissioners scooped up bare farm land with promises that someday 300 jobs would sprout. The number was made up. No justification for the claim has been disclosed.
But even if that was possible, the county plunked down its millions without ever answering the most obvious question: Who’s going to pay to develop it? Bare ground doesn’t grow streets and sewers and water lines on its own. That takes money – big money. Wilson, Hodge and Joyce repeatedly ignored questions about where it would come from.
But last fall, the county approached the state for help financing the deal, needing $14 million to develop that one farm land – plus another chunk of ground that Wilson had an ownership stake in. When the Enterprise reported that figure, the commissioners dismissed it. Wilson said he had no idea where the newspaper got that figure.
That number was in the county’s own paperwork. That these commissioners were mystified by where that number came from is troubling. Aren’t the commissioners reading their own paperwork?
And now, it turns out, the county needs $15 million to develop just the one piece of industrial ground. Malheur County doesn’t have that kind of money. The hope now is that a federal agency will just hand over the money. Without that grant, that farm land will stay bare except for the separate rail shipping center.
Taxpayers, clearly, have had it with this sort of loose, reckless management of county affairs. The Malheur County Court, including Wilson in his last six months of service, needs to heed that signal from the county’s people. They should take four steps to bolster public trust in their actions.
First, they have to prove more vigorous overseers of these industrial projects. They need to verify information and demand clearer understandings of cost versus benefit.
Second, they need to audit the Malheur County Economic Development Department. They have never examined the list of tasks required of that agency to determine what the public is getting for $180,000 a year.
Third, they need to suspend the industrial park project to assess – in a recession – the need and whether the $15 million in costs is reasonable. No one on the county court appears to be questioning costs, purpose or benefits.
Larry Wilson’s defeat is the consequence of county commissioners ignoring public concerns and treating any questioning of their actions as unfair or uninformed. They serve best now by honestly assessing their work, changing how they fulfill their duties, and above all showing they will more dutifully guard the public treasury. – LZ
Contact editor Les Zaitz at [email protected].
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