In the community, Local government

COMMENTARY: Citizens should demand Malheur County officials end secrecy around reload project

Public officials in charge of the bungled Treasure Valley Reload Center are treating Malheur County citizens like a bunch of rubes.

They downplay excessive costs, late work and behind-the-scenes deals.

They take a “nothing to see here” attitude. They are not out of money, they say. Construction is going well, they claim.

They have grown accustomed to their power, to having inside information. They behave as if those of us on the outside are too dumb to understand.

But the people of Malheur County understand too well. They know there is a stink around this project worse than a pile of rotting onions. They want the truth.

Arrogant public officials, though, are making it ever harder to get that truth.

The latest evidence comes this week.

Grant Kitamura is president of the Malheur County Development Corp. He’s also an onion executive in Ontario. The Malheur County Court created the development company to handle the Nyssa reload project. The company acts like a government agency in a lot of ways.

At development company board meetings, time has always been set aside for questions from the press.

Reporters from the Enterprise have used this time to the community’s benefit. That’s because most of those running the project don’t want to otherwise answer our questions.

No more questions

Last month, Kitamura cut off questioning, as he has done before. But this time, he made a threat.

“It may come to the point we don’t take questions anymore because we don’t have to. We’ll probably go that direction,” he said.

If they don’t like doing the public’s business in public, they should resign. They should clear their seats for others who respect and honor the right of citizens to question those doing the governing.

He made good. The question period for the press disappeared from this week’s agenda.

Kitamura also participated in a news conference where Greg Smith, Malheur County economic development director, barred the Enterprise. He didn’t intervene to see that our reporters were allowed in. Instead, he went along briefing reporters who know next to nothing about the Nyssa project, who could be counted on to ask easy questions.

He’s not the only public official who doesn’t like being questioned about public business.

Malheur County Commissioner Ron Jacobs at a recent meeting stopped questioning by the Enterprise, complaining the newspaper was using a public comment period. The questioning continued only after the meeting adjourned.

But Jacobs seems to prefer that the government’s business with the rail center be done out of public view anyway. He complained at that meeting about “negative” stories. He never said they were wrong. He apparently just doesn’t like the truth being given to the public if it’s not good news.

He has adopted a common tactic of virtually every official touching this project. He ignored written questions about his actions.

Questions but no answers

At the Enterprise, we often send questions in writing on contentious issues. This gives those asked a fair chance to answer. The answers can be in writing. There is no question what was said.

Jacobs, though, hasn’t answered what government records he thought were unnecessary for the Enterprise and the public to see. He hasn’t answered whether he has even read the public records requests. Perhaps he didn’t, relying instead on Greg Smith whispering truth in his ear.

That avoidance of questions has been pronounced after the latest development involving Smith. The development company wanted to give him a new contract, taking his monthly pay from $6,000 to $15,000. The Enterprise posed questions we think any sensible taxpayer would ask.

We wanted to know how this offer came to be. A letter to the county from the development company’s attorney suggested the board agreed to it. That would mean that the directors somehow out of public view decided on doubling Smith’s pay.

We sent the directors several questions, including: “Was there a meeting of the board to approve this proposal? If so, when and where?”

Not one director answered ­– not Kitamura, not Kay Riley, not Jason Pearson, not Corey Maag and not Lynn Findley.

We also quizzed every member of the Malheur County Court, asking questions we’re sure every taxpayer wants answered. That included: “Do you support MCDC’s desire to retain Greg Smith to manage the reload center project?” and “Do you support MCDC’s request for the county to fund $15,000 a month?”

Hodge answered in an interview. Joyce? Jacobs? Not a word.

This silence comes on top of resisting public records requests from the Enterprise. We have fought to get such documents because project officials won’t answer questions and because the documents can and often do reveal the truth. Smith in some cases has even said there was no public benefit from showing the records.

Whiteout on budget

When we recently asked for a budget document, Smith instead produced a photograph of a budget paper. There were figures handwritten in colored ink ­and evident use of whiteout. Whiteout? On a government document? For spending $26 million in public money?

We turned to Malheur County District Attorney Dave Goldthorpe for an order requiring release of the document. Goldthorpe seemed incredulous at the photograph. “This is 2022,” he said, and directed Smith to turn over the budget document.

Smith, his arrogance in full display, has ignored the DA’s order.

We recognize those in power are mighty unhappy with the Enterprise and its persistence.

That includes Joyce and Jacobs.

That includes every director on the development company.

And Smith behaves as if he should never – not ever – be questioned about project troubles. At least, not questioned by anyone that knows the topic.

To all of them: Tough. No one forced any of these men into public service. But when they accepted that duty, their first oath was to be to the people of Malheur County, not their clique of insiders. If they don’t like doing the public’s business in public, they should resign. They should clear their seats for others who respect and honor the right of citizens to question those doing the governing.

The community needs to raise the call: Enough.

As a citizen, you should demand open books ­– immediately.

As a citizen, you should demand answers and accountability.

As a citizen, you should demand the truth.

And demand it from the three people who have the most to say about it all – those on the Malheur County Court. I encourage you to send them an email, a letter, or make a call. Perhaps public pressure can clear their vision enough to see their obligation is to citizens, not Greg Smith.

Call them at the courthouse at 541-473-5124.

Write them:

Dan Joyce: [email protected]

Ron Jacobs: [email protected]

Don Hodge: [email protected].

Speak up, Malheur County. Your voice will make the difference.