EDITORIAL: Failing to oversee Smith’s work, Court fails Malheur County and its people

The responsibility for the weak performance of the Malheur County Economic Development Department rests with three people: Malheur County Judge Dan Joyce, Commissioner Don Hodge, and Commissioner Ron Jacobs.

As commissioners, they have the duty to oversee that agency and their contractor, Greg Smith. They are expected to determine that every public dollar spent benefits the people of Malheur County. They are failing.

Smith’s company, Gregory Smith & Company, has been contracted since 2013 to run the county agency. The commissioners say they expect the $100,000 or so they pay him each year will result in bringing new employers to Malheur County and creating new jobs.

But they aren’t sure what Smith is delivering. The commissioners couldn’t name any major employer that set roots in Malheur County because of Smith’s work. They had to rely on Smith to tip them to anything accomplished last year, each of them citing the same instance of success – the opening of a roadside coffee stand on the Oregon-Nevada border.

They ask virtually nothing of Smith when it’s time to renew his contract each summer. That basic contract has gone unchanged in eight years – the same tasks required to justify payment. The commissioners apparently have not asked for documentation those tasks were getting done.

If they had, as the Enterprise did, they would learn that some of what taxpayers have been buying for eight years hasn’t been delivered. Smith and Company, for instance, is supposed to come up with a work plan each year, with goals. That’s sensible and reasonable. In a recorded interview in front of Joyce, Smith insisted he had done so. He couldn’t produce it. He insisted there was a marketing plan to lure employers to the county. But when he was ordered to release that plan, Smith turned over a document created just a day earlier. This apparent fabrication of a public record – Smith hasn’t contested that characterization – should alarm commissioners.

This all matters to the people of Malheur County for two reasons.

One is that our county desperately needs economic strengthening. We remain the poorest county in the state. We need employers, workers and housing. Smith has delivered precious little of any of that.

The second reason is that county commissioners are paid to manage county government. Voters expect them to be certain that services and goods bought are delivered. They are supposed to be efficient with the tax dollar.

When they want to, they can be diligent. They wouldn’t give Pioneer Place any money until they saw financial numbers.

Before that, Joyce, Hodge and Jacobs grilled the souls from the Brogan Community Society about money they wanted to maintain a public park along the highway.

This handful of volunteers spend their time and their own money to tend to the little park. They asked the county commissioners for a few dollars to cover gas for the mower, weed spray and rent for a portable toilet for passing motorists to use.

The total ask was $3,206 – about a third of what Greg Smith’s company is paid in a single month.

The commissioners wanted detailed expenditure reports. They wanted receipts. The commissioners approved $1,836 but turned down money for gas and weed spray – and toilet rentals. “Documentation for these expenses is not available,” the court explained in its minutes.

Yet Smith each year waltzes in to the commissioners – “hey, gang” is his standard greeting – to re-up his $108,000 contract. Commissioners aren’t moved to ask even the most basic question: How many jobs did you create last year? Instead, they have a friendly chat, rubber stamp the new contract, and move on.

In some ways, you can’t blame Smith. He’s a businessman. If he can get away with minimal performance and still cash $9,000 county checks each month, that’s just business.

No, the fault is with Joyce, Hodge and Jacobs, who subsidize subpar performance at public expense.

If the cost doesn’t trouble them, the commissioners ought to be alarmed about Smith’s challenges telling the truth. In that recorded interview, Smith told a number of falsehoods. He spun a tale about how his agency was audited. It never was. He said the Enterprise hadn’t asked for documents. It had. He claimed to have produced that work plan. He hadn’t.

In 2019, you might remember, the Enterprise documented how Smith’s agency lied to a new employer for months. The Bluebird Car Wash owners were promised a tax credit for building in Ontario. They were told the holdup was at the city. That wasn’t true. They were told the paperwork was turned in to the state. That wasn’t true. Smith finally told them the truth -– they simply weren’t eligible for the break.

And just last week, Smith announced that legislators had given the Nyssa rail project he manages another $3 million. Asked for specifics, he said that Rep. Mark Owens would know the details. But Owens said he knew nothing about that. And, it turns out, there is no $3 million. Another Smith fable.

Yet the county commissioners continue to turn to Smith as their source for reliable information about how the economic development work is going. That’s a mistake. It’s a failure in oversight.

Jim Bishop, a Vale resident, wrote in a letter to the editor last week that the commissioners need to change course.

Bishop said one option was not to renew Smith’s contract when it’s up in June. He’s right. The Malheur County Economic Development Department right now seems to be spending its time preparing free websites for businesses and going to school events. That’s not bringing employers to Malheur County.

Bishop also wrote, “Consider contracting with nearby agencies that specialize in economic development, and that have track records that can be vetted.”

He is on the mark here. Why not keep that $100,00 here in Malheur County and support organizations that can document effectiveness that Heppner-based Smith & Company can’t?

The commissioners should look at two other economic development operations that are based here, have employees here, with leaders active in the community. The Small Business Development Center at Treasure Valley Community College and the Snake River Economic Development Alliance should be invited by the commissioners to propose what they could do for that $100,000 a year.

Those organizations already have management in place. They know how to assess results. They are trusted. They are respected.

And now’s the time for a change. Millions of dollars are available in federal and state support. Malheur County needs a unified strategy to get its share, with a focus on doing what county commissioners say they want done – bring in new employers and create new jobs in Malheur County.

Joyce, Hodge and Jacobs should act decisively and with the interests of the taxpayers of Malheur County the only consideration. They need to affirm they want honest and effective service and replace Smith & Company. If they stand by Greg Smith instead of the community in the face of questionable value, then it will be the voters who need to make a change. – LZ

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