Commentary, Local government

Commentary: Citizens are winners in Enterprise lawsuit over public records

The citizens of Malheur County are the big winners from the legal deal between the Enterprise and two public entities.

The community will get more and faster information about public projects.

The community will get better government because leaders will know more about those projects.

That means more frugal use of public money and more responsible decisions.

This flows from the settlement of a lawsuit the Enterprise filed last fall. The newspaper sued Malheur County and its development arm, the Malheur County Development Corp., for violating the state’s public records law.

For a small newspaper to take on government in court is risky.

Public officials can spend all they want on lawyers since they don’t have to put up a dime for those expenses.

For the Enterprise, legal fees were a heavy burden.

But we had in our corner a tenacious attorney who believed, as we did, that Malheur County government had to be held to account. Dan Norris of Vale, former Malheur County district attorney, agreed that the county leaders had wronged the Enterprise – and the community.

The seeds for this fight were planted by someone now gone from Malheur County – Greg Smith. The transient businessman from Heppner spent years cashing county checks to operate as its economic development director. He then added on another layer of checks to manage – mismanage, really – the Treasure Valley Reload Center.

For years, Smith and his team obstructed our work to report on that rail project. He slow-walked public records requests, meaning he took his time to turn over ordinary documents. He denied documents existed. And he destroyed public records, reasoning that if a document was gone, it was no longer a public record.

He went beyond that to keep the truth from the public. He stopped giving interviews to the Enterprise. He stopped answering written questions. He stopped even addressing emails where we sent him portions of stories to review for accuracy before they were published.

He did not act alone. The directors of the development company were conspirators in this silence. They stood by, motionless. The Malheur County Court, too, conspired to permit this conduct. Malheur County Judge Dan Joyce, the one leader in place throughout Smith’s entire tenure, shrugged and looked the other way. He shirked his duty to the people of Malheur County.

Despite these obstacles and relentless attacks on our reporting, the Enterprise persisted.

We reported over and over again about questionable budgeting. Now, the reload project that officials vowed would not cost a dime over $26 million is at $40 million and climbing.

We reported on flawed contracting, triggering a return to public bidding instead of private deal making.

We reported on faulty accounting and false claims used to justify the climbing expenses.

Now, the landscape has changed dramatically.

Greg Smith is gone. He cashed his last check and left the county.

He has been replaced by the competent Shawna Peterson. She is digging out bones of trouble buried by the project team. 

The development company board is now holding in-person meetings that also are broadcast. Directors appear to be paying much closer attention than they have in years.

And the area’s legislators no longer blindly parrot the past project leaders’ claims. State Sen. Lynn Findley and Rep. Mark Owens are now insisting on real numbers about project costs. 

Project leaders undertook other reforms.

The development company adopted a first-ever communications plan. The core goal: Be open.

Malheur County reformed its own public records policy. And as part of the deal with the Enterprise, every county leader will go through training on the public records law.

To settle the lawsuit, the development company agreed to pay the Enterprise $20,500. Its insurance company, not taxpayers, will write the check.

Malheur County will cover $19,500. That pales in comparison to the monthly $15,000 payment the county made for years to Smith.

Most important, the county and the development company concede the need for reforms as a result of the Enterprise reporting. To us, the most crucial element of the settlement is this:

“MCDC and Malheur County acknowledge that the press plays an important role in informing the public about the Treasure Valley Reloading Center. Malheur County had a unique economic development opportunity for which there was no existing operating model. In retrospect, the program which included MCDC, should have been better structured to promote transparency. The County and MCDC have made significant changes to the program to promote transparency that did not exist before.”

There remains one unfinished piece of business.

In his local contract, Smith promised to “hold harmless” the county for “costs and expenses” caused by his company’s “acts, omissions and services.”

The case can be made that his “acts, omissions and services” are what are now costing the county another $19,500. Smith should write a check to the county without prodding, but he won’t.

So, the Malheur County Court should do now what it has not done before – hold Smith accountable. The commissioners should demand Smith repay that $19,500.

HOW TO SUBSCRIBE – The Malheur Enterprise delivers quality local journalism – fair and accurate. You can read it any hour, any day with a digital subscription. Read it on your phone, your Tablet, your home computer. Clicksubscribe – $7.50 a month.