EDITORIAL: Looking the other way shouldn’t be the response of county commissioners to serious questions about credibility of their economic development unit. Citizens say a review is in order. When will the Malheur County Court act?

NOTE: Do you want to comment or respond? Send an email to info@malheurenterprise.com or see this post on the Malheur Enterprise Facebook page.

Malheur County’s three commissioners see nothing amiss with their economic development agency. That’s why it’s going to be up to Malheur County citizens to demand they act and order a performance audit of the agency. So far, the commissioners have failed their duty to the public to properly manage the shop run by Greg Smith.

County Judge Dan Joyce and Commissioners Larry Wilson and Don Hodge have been pretty quiet about the mess at their economic development agency. These are the men who retain Greg Smith’s company at $180,000 a year in public money, who are responsible for that money, and who shrug about what that company has done. They even set aside an extra $50,000 for Smith to use as needed to push the Treasure Valley Reload Center.

There is no more stark evidence of the need for a review than the handling of the tax exemption sought by owners of Bluebird Express Car Wash. As the Malheur Enterprise has reported, the company owners were teased into thinking a property tax exemption was theirs for the asking. When the exemption didn’t show, the county’s economic development agency made one misleading or downright false statement after another.

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Smith, the agency’s director, finally said months after he started handling the company’s application that it “never” qualified for the tax exemption. By then, the company invested $4 million in Ontario, trusting Malheur County officials were telling them the truth. The company was told, for instance, that its application was headed for the Malheur County Court. That didn’t happen. It was told that state officials were the hangup. The state, when it learned of that claim, pushed back, saying it had nothing to do with approving a county tax matter.

Here’s what ought to deeply trouble Malheur County residents. The Enterprise last week asked all three commissioners a series of questions. One: “Do you support all the actions of your economic development department in this matter?” Joyce and Wilson said they did. Hodge didn’t bother to respond. They were asked what action they had taken in light of the car wash mess. Wilson and Joyce responded they did nothing. Hodge, again, didn’t respond.

Finally, all three were asked: “Do you think it’s time now for an independent outside evaluation of your economic development department?” Joyce and Wilson said no; Hodge didn’t respond.

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They are wrong about the outside evaluation. That they have no concerns about the Bluebird matter suggests they are either blind to public accountability or so beholden to Smith for reasons unknown that they are frozen into inaction.

We have suggested an outside review, and we’re not talking a financial audit. We are talking about a performance evaluation, routinely done at both the state and federal level. What’s a performance audit? According to standards of the federal Government Accountability Office, a performance review typically measures “the extent to which a program is achieving its goals and objectives,” assesses compliance with contracts, and recommends improvements. Why would Joyce, Wilson and Hodge want to avoid such a review?

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As the GAO explain in its standards, a well-done review could give the commissioners guidance on “improving program performance and operations, reducing costs” and “contributing to public accountability.”

Under federal standards, a performance review would be “an accurate report” that is “supported by sufficient, appropriate evidence” and should be convincing to “help focus the attention of responsible officials on the matters that warrant attention and can provide an incentive for taking corrective action.”

Among matters that warrant attention is what county taxpayers are getting for the extra $6,000 a month awarded to Smith’s company to run the county agency. When first awarded, this contract required Smith to apply for a federal grant to help pay for local development. Where’s the application? Where’s the federal money? Under the original $9,000-a-month contract, Gregory Smith and Company was supposed to deliver 12 services to the county. Where are the “written goals” for county economic development? Where is the “countywide marketing and promotion” required for that compensation?

Readers last week weighed in on social media that they want an audit – comments that Joyce, Wilson and Hodge ought to seriously consider. “If they have nothing to hide then it shouldn’t be a problem,” wrote Angelene Mendez. And this from Jessica Hiatt: “There should be no fear or complaint about an audit if all is above board and has been handled ethically and honestly. If there is hesitancy or refusal, then there’s a problem.”

That’s exactly right – no fear, no complaint about an independent review. The county’s costly economic development agency is badly in need of oversight, and that’s not been coming from the three commissioners. Citizens ought to reach out to the Malheur County Court and demand an outside review. So should area economic groups, including chambers of commerce, which are getting far less benefit than they should from this county operation. And local cities, too, ought to come out and insist on a review.

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Hopes for economic progress are impaired when the lead local agency’s reputation is increasingly questioned. If the performance by Smith and his team have been without fault and beneficial, let’s find out. If improvements are needed, why wouldn’t you want to learn that?

Joyce, Wilson and Hodge have been quick to hand over to Smith more county money because he asked. They ought to be just as quick to dig into the budget to hire outside auditors, perhaps through the state Audits Division. Taxpayers deserve something better than commissioners who seem to prefer looking the other way when there’s trouble. – LZ

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