Business & economy, Special Reports

DA orders county to release key budget document for rail reload center

VALE – Malheur County has been ordered to release public records regarding the construction budget for the Treasure Valley Reload Center.
Dave Goldthorpe, Malheur County district attorney, issued the order June 27 to the Malheur County Economic Development Department and its director, Greg Smith.
He granted the petition of the Malheur Enterprise, which had been seeking a particular budget document from Smith’s team since May.
Smith said at a May 24 meeting that there was an updated budget crafted by Anderson Perry and Associates – the rail project engineering firm – and it “should show exactly where we are at with spending and we think we should be able to get done.” Smith characterized the budget as “well-defined.”
The newspaper requested that budget from the county’s economic development office and Smith but got no response, and then filed a formal public records request with the county on June 9. Seven days later, Smith emailed a photograph of a document entitled “Estimated Expenditures of Remaining Funds.”
Goldthorpe concluded that was “not a satisfactory response.”
He wrote in his order that Smith’s office provided “a photo of what appears to be a scribbled-on budget document being held by someone at a distance from the camera.”
“Any budget document should exist on a firm’s or MCED’s computer in some electronic form,” Goldthorpe wrote. “This actual/official budget document or documents must be provided.”
He ordered the county to waive any fees for producing the document and refund any fees collected related to the records request. The county did not charge for the photograph.

READ IT: District attorney’s order
As of Friday, July 1, the county had not released the budget document.
“We do not request public records for any purpose other than to inform the community,” said Publisher Les Zaitz. “No government agency should have to be ordered to disclose the most basic public document of all ­– a budget. The trouble getting at this information raises questions about what it is the county doesn’t want the public to see.”
Under the Oregon Public Records Law, government agencies have to provide public access to their documents. There are exceptions to protect personal information, criminal investigations and other sensitive information.
Dan Joyce, Malheur County judge, and County Commissioner Ron Jacobs, who has been dealing with Smith over the rail project, couldn’t explain why the county records weren’t released.
“I can’t explain that,” said Jacobs. “I don’t think anything should necessarily be kept from the public. It is all public money.”
Joyce and Jacobs tried to address whether the community could trust that all public records were accessible.
“That’s a good question. I thought they were all being turned over,” said Joyce.
Jacobs could not explain why the district attorney needed to intervene in a routine public records request.
“We’ve been trying to get them to produce the documents that were requested. I feel like there has been an abundance (of public records requests) and more than necessary requests,” he said. “But by the same token, I believe they should produce the documents that are pertinent.”
Smith has a practice of not providing interviews or responding to written questions from the Enterprise.
Jacobs said he didn’t believe Smith “has tried to withhold any public records from anybody.”
“I don’t think it’s been deliberate,” Jacobs said. “I just think he is slow in responding.”
Smith, however, barred the Enterprise from a recent news conference he conducted to provide information on the rail project.
The Enterprise also sought Treasure Valley Reload Center budget records from Joyce, asking for the recent budget and “each document relied by Malheur County or its contracted consultants to produce that document.”
“The Enterprise has been attempting for months to get detailed project budget document from your economic development department and to date what has been offered instead are ‘Expenditure Estimates’ which don’t conform to government budget standards,” the Enterprise said in its request to Joyce on June 20.
Joyce in turn requested that Smith fulfill the request at no cost. Smith replied that his office would produce the documents by July 1. No records were released.

News tip? Contact reporter Pat Caldwell at [email protected].
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