Reporter Pat Caldwell, who has covered events in Malheur County for more than 20 years, got an important tip.
A source said something was wrong with tax credits promised to a new business. Pat went to work.
He learned quickly that indeed, Bluebird Express Car Wash, had applied for an exemption for local property taxes for five years. The company was about to build a new $4 million installation in Ontario. The tax break was key to the decision to build.
To pursue the facts, Pat interviewed Ontario city officials, the county assessor, and the county judge. He talked with state experts on tax exemptions. He talked with the head of Bluebird several times.
Bluebird applied for its tax exemption last November, working with the Malheur County Economic Development Department. In July, frustrated Bluebird officials reached out to the county assessor, Dave Ingram, trying to learn the fate of their exemption.
The Enterprise sought the answer to that question from the person responsible – Greg Smith, director of Malheur County Economic Development Department. He didn't respond to Pat's contacts at any point before publication.
As information and documents came together, Pat sent written questions to Smith and his Ontario assistant, John Braese. Braese is a former reporter for the Enterprise and is well acquainted with the newspaper’s procedures to seek accurate information.
Pat sent one batch of questions:
As new information developed, Pat sent a second set of questions:
On Saturday, Aug. 10, as the editor of the Enterprise, I worked to edit Pat's story and emailed Smith and Braese, encouraging them to provide answers to Pat’s questions. I indicated the Enterprise was providing each of them “every opportunity” to provide information and comment about the Bluebird situation.
Following our internal procedures to ensure accuracy, Pat sent an email Monday morning, providing draft excerpts of the pending story. This is part of our procedure that is unique in the news profession. This is part of the principles of the Malheur Enterprise, which are available on our website and posted in our lobby. One principle states:
"We follow our own customized fact-checking protocol to guard against error. That includes a requirement to reach out to subjects of stories as possible to verify the accuracy of our intended reporting."
(You can read our full statement of principles on our website HERE.)
Here is the email that Pat sent with the excerpts:
Braese never responded and Smith didn't respond until Monday evening, hours after the deadline provided for him to participate in the story. He didn't answer questions or flag anything as inaccurate in the statements provided to him. He instead complained about emails sent to “our employees outside of their work place…While you see yourself as ‘just asking questions,’ my staff and I see your infatuated behaviors as harassing in nature.”
The story published in Wednesday’s print edition of the Enterprise and on our website. Smith within hours released a statement, confirming Bluebird wasn’t eligible for the promised tax break. The Enterprise allowed Smith to post his statement on its Facebook page and we provided a direct link to his full statement in the digital version of the story.
We operate under the promise to the community that our journalism will meet high standards. Our motto: First, Fair, Accurate. They are not just words. We take our duty to you, the citizens of Malheur County, seriously. We take our duty to the truth seriously. And we take seriously our responsibility to hold government accountable for how it treats those it governs.
By sharing the background of how this story evolved, I hope you’ll understand the great care taken to be fair, to get the facts, and tell you something important about your local government. In today's environment, we understand the high doubts about the press - who has an agenda, who's pushing an opinion over information, and those posing as legitimate information sources only to betray readers with fake news. We realize - each of us at the Enterprise - that our most valuable asset is your trust. We work to earn it every hour, every day.
If you have questions or concerns, please feel free to email – at any hour of the day – at [email protected]
Les Zaitz, editor and publisher