EDITORIAL: It’s time for Malheur County to cut ties with Greg Smith

A visibly angry Greg Smith turns to respond as questions are directed his way in a May 17 meeting. (The Enterprise/PAT CALDWELL)

The Malheur County Court soon will decide whether the community should keep Greg Smith as its lead economic development officer. Given the damage he has done, there is little justification for extending for Smith a contract no one enforces. County leaders should cut Smith loose.

Smith’s company, Gregory Smith & Company, has been under contract since 2013 to independently run the Malheur County Economic Development Department. County officials aren’t very clear what they’ve been getting for $9,000 a month.

Then, since 2017, Smith’s company has been paid another $6,000 a month related to the Nyssa rail project, working through the Malheur Economic Development Corp. The Treasure Valley Reload Center is years behind schedule and Smith’s team doesn’t have the money to finish it.

The deep financial trouble the project is in is testimony to Smith’s incompetence as project leader.

Nearly 18 months ago, Smith was warned by his lead engineer that the Treasure Valley Reload Center was going to cost millions more than expected. The engineer then urged Smith to add another $5 million to the budget.

Such a recommendation would have alarmed a capable project manager. A responsible executive would have delved into that development. A wise leader would have sought outside expertise to confirm the engineer’s numbers.

There is no record we’ve seen that shows Smith did any of that. Instead, he sent to the state a detailed budget that balanced to the penny – the engineer’s budget scrubbed of any of the overruns. There is no record Smith alerted state or county officials that money could be an issue – and this was about 10 months before the first construction contract was issued.

In the fall, Smith had another chance to do the right thing. The price on the first contract came in high. Smith doesn’t seem to have been alarmed and doesn’t seem to have considered what other costs might come in high. Instead, his engineer said maybe they could postpone a rail spur and still get it all done.

By January, Smith had a third signal that costs were out of hand. The contractors starting work quickly became mired in a swampland and their bills started climbing. Did Smith tell the county? Not that the record shows. Did he warn the state? No indication. Did he even tell the volunteer board of business executives, who likely would have understood the peril?

No, his team didn’t unveil the depth of the money shortage until April. That’s when he famously put out a notice that the project would be $5 million short – only to have that figure nearly double over the weekend.

But he kept right on spending money.

The money mess was compounded by one of Smith’s most pronounced blunders. He claimed in March that he got another $3 million for the project. By then, he clearly knew there were money problems, but he remained vague about what the money would buy, suggesting it would add bonus features.

But there was no $3 million. How do you lose track of $3 million? Smith is a long-time legislator with considerable sway over state budgeting. If anyone, Smith should have known the $3 million he requested then wasn’t coming. He hasn’t explained his blunder, but based on this alone, county leaders should doubt Smith’s credibility.

So, as of Monday, where was the project? Dead in the water. No more money. No rail building. No schedule to unleash the first load of onions.

County officials have to ask: What will Smith do in the year ahead that no one else could do?

Raise more money? No. Smith has failed at every turn.

Keep the project on schedule? No. Smith from Day One has missed nearly every important deadline.

Arrange for customers for the reload center? No. Americold, retained to run Nyssa, has a sophisticated marketing team to get that done.

Work with Union Pacific Railroad? The railroad’s already inked its deal, has $2.5 million of the county’s money, and will work with Americold on train schedules.

The record indicates that the only likely result of keeping Smith is another year of mismanagement. Additionally, Malheur County Development Corp. reported to state authorities last October that Smith spends an average of 10 hours a week “devoted” to his position. Ten hours a week for a $26 million project.

Then there’s Smith’s superficial performance as the economic development director. Smith talks in vague terms and often in circles when he explains what he’s delivering to Malheur County’s economy for his $9,000 a month. Joyce, Hodge and Jacobs aren’t too clear what they are getting. There is supposed to be a marketing plan, but Smith apparently fabricated one belatedly when the Enterprise asked for it earlier this year. There is supposed to be a work plan. There isn’t one.

County officials should consider how Smith erodes trust in Malheur County government. When Smith speaks around here, he does so as an agent of Joyce, Hodge and Jacobs. His tirade at a recent public meeting reveals just how comfortable he feels that he can get away with just about anything in Malheur County.

Citizens are fed up with Smith’s carpet bagging performance. They are fed up with Smith’s dismissive view of accountability. We are learning he apparently has been destroying public records. And that’s besides claiming other records don’t exist or that getting to them will cost up to $225 an hour. That’s just wrong. Smith doesn’t care. He seems to think it’s a sport to see how much information he can keep away from the community.

Before Joyce, Hodge and Jacobs sign up for another tour with Smith, they should at least take two steps. First, they should require Smith to appear in person at their next meeting to explain what he accomplished in the past year. Second, the commissioners should decide what it is they expect to get done in the next year ahead. They should make clear on the record and in public what results they want from Gregory Smith & Company.

Their ultimate decision should be driven by defining what value – if any – Malheur County taxpayers can expect from another year of sending monthly checks to Greg Smith.                 

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