Thursday night could have been a great opportunity for the Union County Economic Development Corporation to begin to clear the air regarding a host of troubling questions concerning an embezzlement case that the nonprofit suffered.
Instead, now even more questions linger, and a decision to bar the press from attending the executive session sends up a host of red flags that should have every taxpayer in Union County deeply concerned.
Readers may recall that the economic development corporation, which receives part of its funding from taxpayers’ dollars, was at the heart of an embezzlement probe. The investigation is over and the individual involved in the embezzlement has moved through the judicial system and paid restitution. Justice has prevailed, but questions regarding the actions of the development corporation and elected leaders in connection to the case remain unanswered.
The aim of last night’s meeting was to discuss a request by the La Grande City Council. The council asked that economic board members attend the next city council session to answer several questions. The questions include: When was the restitution made to UCEDC? What measures have been put in place by UCEDC to prevent this from occurring again? Within the limits of any agreements UCEDC may have in place, what can UCEDC share about the reported embezzlement?
The Observer planned to cover this meeting, believing it had as much right to attend as it does to report on city council or county court sessions. And, because of the nature of this case, it seemed important that the press was on hand to be able to convey to the public the answers to these questions. The Observer also received a personal invitation to attend the meeting from the organization’s executive director, Dan Stark.
But other Union County Economic Development Corporation officials disagreed. Agency President Mark Davidson told The Observer Thursday afternoon that his board doesn’t fit the definition of a public body and the newspaper was not welcome at the session.
The Observer attorneys and counsel for the agency debated Davidson’s assertion. In the end, the agency attorneys agreed that the economic development board is not a public body as defined by Oregon law. Even though the organization is partially funded by taxpayer dollars and therefore should have proper public oversight and accountability for the disappearance of public funds, The Observer was barred from the meeting, leaving the public in the dark.
At first glance this may seem like a dispute between the newspaper and the economic development board. However, let us be perfectly clear on this point. This is not an argument about whose ox is being gored. This is an argument about public access to the truth.