By Pat Caldwell
VALE – Malheur County Commissioner Larry Wilson is a shareholder in a company selling land to the county for a rail shipping center, and he said Thursday he will recuse himself from any county court decisions affecting the land.
“I will have to do that. That what I feel I have to do,” said Wilson.
Wilson said he retains shares in Nyssa Industries, a firm that owns one of the properties chosen for the new rail center north of Nyssa.
Wilson said he doesn’t know how many shares he owns and that he hasn’t seen a cent from the company. Wilson said the shares pay no dividends.
“My parents bought some shares. By virtue of my parents, my sisters and I have their shares,” said Wilson.
Other company officials couldn’t immediately be reached for details about Wilson’s holdings and who else holds stock in the company.
Under Oregon ethics law, public officials have to disclose any conflict of interest if their decisions could financially benefit them.
Although a public corporation is managing the project, for now Malheur County is working to purchase the land, according to Stephanie Williams, Malheur County counsel. She said the acquisition would have to be approved by the county court, which includes Wilson, Commissioner Don Hodge and Judge Dan Joyce.
Wilson will have to abstain from voting on matters that involve Nyssa Industries, she said.
“He will have a conflict in the actual purchase of the Nyssa Industries land. It doesn’t matter how remote,” said Williams.
The court is scheduled to consider on Dec. 20 adjusting an enterprise zone for one of the Nyssa-area properties being acquired for the multi-million dollar public project. However, the Nyssa Industries property is not part of the zone adjustment and Wilson won't have to declare a conflict then.
An enterprise zone is designed to attract businesses to a specific area by providing an exemption from property taxes.
The county court earlier this year created the Malheur County Development Corp., a public entity that is handling the rail shipping project.
The site – which will also include a new industrial park - is situated along Arcadia Boulevard and adjacent to the Union Pacific Railroad tracks. The rail shipping center is seen by many as an economic game-changer not only for the county but Nyssa and will create an estimated 125 jobs. Funding for the project - $26 million - comes from House Bill 2017, a massive transportation plan approved by the Oregon Legislature last summer.
County assessor records show the biggest parcel is owned by Charles, James and Margaret Farmer of Nyssa. James Farmer of Fort Boise Produce in Nyssa was appointed to the development corporation board by Gov. Kate Brown and has recused himself from decisions on the sale.
Nyssa Industries owns a 79-acre lot that it bought in 1960 and which adjoins the third property needed for the rail project, a 36-area lot is owned by Margo Bybee of Nyssa.
Wilson said he did not consider his ownership of shares in Nyssa Industries to be an issue.
“I never really gave it a second thought. I disclosed that to the board of directors of the development corporation,” said Wilson.
Greg Smith, the county’s economic development director, doesn’t think Wilson has an actual conflict of interest.
Smith said he was aware that Wilson owned shares in Nyssa Industries before negotiations began on the property.
“It meant nothing to me. Because in the end it was up to the (Malheur Development) board to decide and none of that came up in our conversations,” said Smith.
Details on the number of individuals who carry shares in Nyssa Industries are murky and therefore understanding how much each person would make on the sale is unknown. Smith said there could be anywhere from 30 to 50 individual owners.
It is up to Nyssa Industries to identify all the owners.
“They are working through that,” said Smith.
Wilson said he doesn’t know if he would make any money off the sale. He said that uncertainty is another reason to recuse himself during the county court’s consideration the purchase of the three properties.
According to the Oregon Government Ethics Commission Guide for Public Officials, the issue of conflict is straightforward. There are two types of conflicts of interest: a potential conflict and an actual conflict. In short, a public official is “met with a conflict of interest when participating in official action which could or would result in a financial benefit or detriment to the public official…”
Those guidelines appear to require Wilson to declare a conflict involving Nyssa Industries and the reason for that conflict. Williams said the county isn’t going to “split hairs” regarding actual and potential conflicts of interest and Wilson won’t vote on anything connected to the rail facility .
Have a news tip? Contact reporter Pat Caldwell at [email protected] or 541-473-3377.