COMMENTARY: Why the Enterprise keeps focused on the rail center project

Enterprise Publisher Les Zaitz.

At the Enterprise, our job is to guard your interests.

Reporters question government authorities. They watch spending closely. And they seek public records to reveal facts and the truth.

That’s why we invest such effort in tracking work on the Treasure Valley Reload Center.

The project planned for just outside Nyssa is one of the biggest investments of public money – your money – to happen in Malheur County. The state is putting up $26 million, and the county has sunk millions more.

We want this to succeed.

This has potential for being a boon for the county’s ag industry. This has the potential to create new jobs you can raise a family on.

To succeed, this project has to be done right, with money spent well, and based on honest decisions.

When the project falters, it’s our job to find out why and report to you.

From the start, we have asked for an accounting of how that money is being spent. The public – Malheur County citizens – are entitled to transparency. As we look over invoices and budgets, our goal is to detect if money is being spent unwisely. We also keep an eye out for who’s profiting. In the end, we think the citizens ought to be the big winners.

And our reporting holds those in charge accountable for their actions.

Such as explaining why Malheur County paid a $1 million over appraised value for land.

Such as explaining why an effort to get $15 million in federal funding foundered on shoddy work and high costs that left the county empty handed.

Such as explaining how the county misled the state to get construction started.

Spotlighting truth is a prime duty for our watchdog reporting. We want to get you the facts so you can judge whether you favor what’s happening.

That truth has been hard to come by.

The county’s economic development machinery, lead by contractor Greg Smith, for years have delayed and obstructed access to public records. Smith has ignored legitimate requests for government records, sometimes for weeks.

We always wonder when a government official fights to keep records of their work out of public hands. Most officials don’t behave like that – they release documents with little fuss.

Not Smith.

Recently, he recently warned the local district attorney that if certain documents were provided to the Enterprise as requested, the rail project could collapse. He said the group of onion shippers formed to use the center and Americold, the industrial giant that may run it, “will walk” if the documents were given over.

A representative of the onion shippers told us they never made such a threat. And the district attorney, Dave Goldthorpe, required the county disclose the documents. We got them – and no one walked.

And then Smith and his outfit fought to keep another document secret. This was a letter from Americold explaining general changes in plans for Nyssa. Smith, parroting Americold’s posture, said the letter contained “trade secrets” whose release would damage the company.

On Friday, newly-released documents showed that Americold shifted from declaring the information was sensitive to telling Smith’s team there was nothing proprietary in the letter.

Why does that matter?

Because that letter and other documents would never have been released had the Enterprise not pressed. No one else would contest the secrecy on your behalf.

In another instance, the county wrote to the state that a key contract needed for Nyssa was nearly done. The county then later confirmed that, at the time of that state report, no such document existed.

Even as we drill down, we always provide county officials the chance to explain, provide information and even review information before it is published.

We routinely send Smith and his county agency detailed written questions. Smith some time ago asked for those so he could efficiently get us information. Yet, the questions go without response.

And, ahead of publication, we often send Smith and the county agency excerpts of a coming story. We do so to be sure we have the facts right, giving the county a chance to catch any mistake in our information. To my memory, Smith has never responded – and then complains later that stories were inaccurate.

Others do take advantage of our unique practice at the Enterprise.

The chairman of the Oregon Transportation Commission, one of the most potent state bodies, recently found the time to both provide thoughtful responses to questions and review draft excerpts for accuracy.

So did the executives at the Oregon Department of Transportation.

This reload center is too important to our county to be mishandled. Taxpayer money is too precious to be wasted. And the credibility of government is too important to let misstatements and false claims go unchecked.

We do this not because this is the jazziest story out there. It’s not. We do it, though, because it’s our duty to you. We will stay on guard for you as long as it takes.

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


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