Malheur County Judge Dan Joyce, shown in his office, and the other members of the County Court heard comments in favor and opposition to the Move Oregon's Border concept. (Enterprise file photo)

VALE – The urban-rural divide in Oregon was center stage Monday during a special meeting of the Malheur County Court regarding a concept to move the state’s border to incorporate a number of eastern Oregon counties into Idaho.

Last year Malheur County voters approved a measure to compel the county court – the county commissioners – to meet three times a year on how best to represent the county if the idea to move Idaho’s border to cover Malheur County becomes more than just a concept. 

The measure passed in Malheur County with a 54% approval rate.

Mike McCarter, a retired La Pine resident who is the president of Move Oregon’s Border, the organization that crafted and then pushed to get the border move proposal on the local ballot, joined the meeting via conference call as did a number of local and out-of-county residents.

Move Oregon’s Border consists of residents from across eastern, central and southern Oregon. The group believes Idaho politics and policies better represent rural Oregon values.

Monday, several local residents raised logistical questions about the meetings and a potential move of Idaho’s border and how the process could move ahead. No decision by the court was made during the session. 

County resident Brent Grasty voiced unease to the court about the open-ended nature of the original ballot measure.

“My concern is we all spend a lot of time on this subject, recognizing the challenges associated with it, when your time and others would be better spent on more pressing issues,” Grasty told the court.

Grasty asked what happens after the court fulfills its obligation by convening three times in a year as outlined by the ballot measure.

“How does it work for the court to say, OK, we’ve done what the voters asked us to do?” asked Grasty.

Dan Joyce, Malheur County judge, said the he understood it “this goes on forever or until you join Idaho.”

“Unless there is a change between now and then,” said Joyce.

“So, there is no end to this?” asked Grasty.

“The voters are the only ones who can repeal it,” Joyce said.

Grasty then asked what happens with specific laws if the border move occurs.

“What happens to your water rights? Do water rights go back to no priority if we shift to Idaho. What happens to fish and wildlife? Does every statue get refreshed? The list is extensive. Has the court addressed all of the issues that were in the measure?” asked Grasty.

Ron Jacobs, Malheur County commissioner, agreed the list of questions regarding the measure “was really long and there would have to be a lot of things to consider.”

“I don’t know how we are going to specifically address that as a court, partly because we are more or less facilitating this and allowing people to speak,” said Jacobs.

Ontario resident Bob Wheatley – an advocate of the Move Oregon’s Border – told the court there is widespread support for the effort in the county.

“I was involved in gathering signatures to get this issue on the ballot and talked to a number of people throughout the county and the vast majority of people were interested in pursuing it,” said Wheatley.

Wheatley also suggested the formation of a county-wide committee to research and develop answers to questions about the proposal.

“This is a grass roots movement. It is the voters of Malheur County and the other counties that voted positive on this issue and they’d like to see this move forward,” said Wheatley.

Blu Fortner, another county resident, voiced opposition to the proposal and cited differences between Idaho and Oregon’s minimum wage, education and the existence of the Idaho sales tax.  

“We have assets Idaho can’t afford, like the PERS (Public Employees Retirement System) and the prison so there is no reason to be talking about this measure at all,” said Fortner.

Area resident Jim Mosier said the Move Oregon’s Border effort isn’t a new concept. 

Mosier said a plan in the 1980s – called the Eastern Oregon Juvenile Justice Consortium, – was “able to actively compete with the metro counties in the state of Oregon for resources.”

“That organization still exists. We did it by dealing with the politics in our own state. It can be done because I was involved in the process that did it,” said Mosier.

He said he worries that “in order to accomplish the change it involves the border of two states, Oregon and Idaho. That isn’t just an interstate issue, that is a federal issue. We really need to think carefully if we want to step into that pool. The water is deep,” said Mosier.

McCarter said the “bottom line in this whole issue is there is a tremendous amount of frustration in rural Oregon about the leadership and the direction Oregon is taking.”

“It is going downhill. I am not saying we should give up on trying to get our voices heard in the Oregon Legislature but it hasn’t worked over the last 20 years,” said McCarter.

McCarter said eight counties had approved a similar ballot measure to Malheur County’s regarding the border move and “by far the vote is getting more and more positive.”

McCarter said state Sen. Lynn Findley, R-Vale, “offered” to take the issue up at the Oregon Legislature. 

In December, the Grant County Court produced a letter to both Findley and Rep. Mark Owens, R-Crane, asking the lawmakers move the idea forward at the legislature.

Findley, a former Vale city manager, said he asked legislative lawyers to outline for him what would be the next legal steps on the border issue.

McCarter said that is a good sign.

“We have more and more representatives and senators and Idaho legislators coming on board to start looking at this issue,” he said.

News tip? Contact Pat Caldwell at [email protected]