EDITORIAL: Governing in secret is wrong, and Malheur County citizens should insist it stop

The Malheur County Development Corporation may have broken Oregon Open Meetings law with a series of decisions last month. (The Enterprise/LES ZAITZ)

A powerful public board in Malheur County with authority to spend millions in taxpayer money has been deciding the public’s business in secret. That must stop immediately. The practice is bad government, abuses the public trust and likely is illegal.

The directors on the Malheur County Development Corp. board have been using their private emails to conduct what amounts to a public meeting. Their own records show they make motions, they look for a second, and then they each vote in emails.

All of this was out of view of the taxpayers – until the Enterprise discovered the practice through public records requests.

Why does it matter?

Because, in Oregon, we decided nearly 50 years ago we wanted boards and commissions and councils to do their work with citizens watching. We didn’t want backroom deals. We didn’t want secret decisions. We wanted honesty. We wanted government we could trust.

This isn’t just a wish. This is the law. Governing in Oregon “requires an informed public” that is aware of discussions, decisions and information used to make government decisions, according to the Open Meetings Law. The law requires decisions “be arrived at openly.”

Some might choose to get technical and consider that acting by email really isn’t a “meeting.” Nonsense. When public officials with the power to decide gather in any manner – in person, on the phone or otherwise ­– they are meeting. And a high court in Oregon has said so.

The Oregon Court of Appeals not long ago opined that there was no excuse for evading the intent of the law. It’s almost as if the judges were aware of what was going on in Malheur County when they wrote their decision.

“The legislative objective could be easily defeated if the statute rigidly applied only to contemporaneous gatherings of a quorum. For example, officials could be polled through an intermediary. In group email messages, officials could deliberate and declare their positions on upcoming issues,” the court said.

The judges thought public officials knew better.

“We doubt that many public officials throughout Oregon presently hold the view that they may skirt the Public Meetings Law by taking decisive action in private,” the judges wrote.

They haven’t been to Malheur County, where the directors of MCDC have been doing just that – “taking decisive action in private.”

They voted to authorize a critical legal document.

They voted to award a $1.2 million contract – without debating why they weren’t taking the lowest bid.

They awarded another $5 million contract because the project engineer was in a hurry.

Why did they do this? Not one of the directors will explain.

That includes Kay Riley, Jason Pearson, Corey Maag, Grant Kitamura, Lynn Findley and Greg Smith.

Riley, Pearson and Maag dodged a chance to answer for their conduct.

Kitamura, who has public board experience, at least responded to questions, but said he wouldn’t answer.

But the two most surprising dodges came from Findley and Smith.

Findley is now a state senator and before that was a city manager. He wondered if the email votes were “advisory” and didn’t amount to official action. That doesn’t pass muster. Findley is smart. At the least, he should have known better and stood in the way of this secret voting. He didn’t.

Then there’s Smith. He has been in public service for years. He’s not some newbie who never heard of the Open Meetings Law. He orchestrates the board actions. That he allowed secret voting out of view of citizens was wrong. He should not have let the board members ever get close to violating the law. He failed them.

How did Smith react when questioned about the matter? He ducked the questions and instead vaguely threatened the Enterprise and hurled insults. He continues to be shockingly unprofessional in his service to Malheur County.

So, the directors don’t want to stand up for what they did, and perhaps some of them really didn’t know the law. Blame Smith for that.

But who put the directors on the job in the first place? The Malheur County Court appointed them.

Judge Dan Joyce was part of those appointments. He’s been on the county court for 17 years. He’s been at countless public meetings and presided over many. The community is right to expect he would safeguard citizens’ access to the public business. But Joyce wouldn’t give his opinion of those email actions by the development board.

He did say that he thought such votes would be later ratified in public. When he learned they weren’t, he acknowledged, “That’s a serious problem.” Beyond that, he had little to say.

It’s time for Joyce and Commissioners Don Hodge and Ron Jacobs to act. The conduct of this development board reflects on Malheur County. The three commissioners should act swiftly to stop these secret actions.

They should direct the board of the Malheur County Development Corp. board to obey the open meetings law – and do its business in public view. They should declare with emphasis that in Malheur County, open government is essential to getting the trust of taxpayers.

The commissioners ought to require that the development corporation conduct a “do over.” They should direct that decisions made by email and in private should be voided ­– the law allows that ­­– and require the development board to decide again – this time in public.

For their part, every director of MCDC owes an apology to the community. These are local men of character and we trust they know right from wrong. This time, they were wrong. They should acknowledge that, and they should fix it. By staying silent, they endorse acting outside the intent of the law.

And to the taxpayers of Malheur County, you should have your say as well. If you want openness, if you want the secrecy stopped, let two key people know. Send an email to Grant Kitamura, who is president of the development corporation (email: [email protected]), and send one to Dan Joyce (email: [email protected] ). Let them know how you feel about public business being done behind the curtains where no one but the favored few can see what’s happening. – LZ