The Urban Renewal Agency had a split reaction to a new point system policy for its Call for Projects program during Wednesday night’s meeting. Some URA members supported the clarity of the system, while others said it is now too stringent and no longer requires the agency members to even participate.

Agency Director Robert Strope presented the members with the updated policy that ranks the CFP applicants for the funding. The agency members have had multiple discussions regarding their concern about how the applications for funding were selected. Agency members have argued previously they aren’t business majors and don’t know how to judge a business on its viability through the information they receive. The result of those discussions was a new method for judging applications that awards points on whether the applicant provided a business plan and points for the proposed location. The system gives more points to projects in the Central Business Zone, and additional points are given to businesses that would occupy a building that had been vacant for at least six months.

Another section of the updated policy focused on comparing how much private investment was being used versus investment from public dollars.

At Wednesday night’s meeting, Nicole Howard, who has been openly critical of the program and has questioned whether the agency should continue to have CFP, said the new policy is now more binary and removes the need for the agency altogether.

She said checking boxes has turned what was a sliding scale point system into a yes or no system.

“It’s profoundly troubling,” she told Strope. “I don’t have to even attend the meeting (to choose the businesses) now. I think we’ve utterly neutered the project.”

Agency member Jim Whitbeck agreed by saying he believes the new policy is too rigid.

Member Corrine Dutto said she likes the structure of the new policy. She likes numbers and thinks this is much more clear than before.

Howard suggested, since it’s about time to begin taking the next round of applications, they put the CFP program on hold.

“Why can’t we view (the program) as an opportunity instead of an obligation and pause this for a year?” she asked.

Agency members Justin Rock and Mary Ann Miesner both disagreed.

Rock expressed his support of the new policy and said the funding process had to have some structure. The new system is a bit different than before and the agency should see if it works better before dismissing it altogether.

Strope was able to interject the new policy allows more than just checking yes or no. He explained the application process will continue to include community comment and an evaluation of the potential business’ viability, plus the members can add discretionary points, which will give the agency members more say.

Other changes include not giving a public comment period during the meeting, but requiring the applicants to submit letters of support for their projects.

La Grande City Council

Prior to the URA meeting, the La Grande City Council met and heard from a group of Eastern Oregon University students regarding the city’s communication of its snow removal schedule.

Four students from EOU’s public policy class — Brandon Cedarholm, Dale Nabu, Kylie Kemp and Yuiko Mark — presented to the council what they perceive to be a flaw in the way the city notifies the community of when snow removal will take place.

“The current communication protocol in the policy dictates the community will be informed of planned plowing via a radio broadcast by 6 a.m.,” Cedarholm said to the council. “Frankly, I, and the other community members I have spoken to, don’t want to wake up at 6 a.m. just to listen to the radio to determine whether the roads will be plowed.”

The students said Union County Emergency Services utilizes a free program called Konexus, which sends out mass text messages to those who sign up for the service, in order to let people know of an emergency or other important messages. Cedarholm said the city can use this program, partnering with the county, to send out information on snow plowing and removal.

The councilors said this sounded like a good idea and will look into it.

Ashley O’Toole, a member of the Stop B2H Coalition, also spoke to the council about the importance of the city getting more involved in stopping the Boardman to Hemingway transmission line project.

“It really can still be stopped,” he told them, stating 12 similar projects across the country have been halted because municipalities like La Grande and organizations like Stop B2H have been able to stand up against the power companies.

Councilor Gary Lillard said he couldn’t be more opposed to the power line project.

“I don’t want to see it,” he said.

O’Toole said the project doesn’t make sense and it could cost customers more money.

“I think it’s time to ramp it up,” he said of the opposition to the line. “We’re approaching one of the final opportunities for public comments. We need to believe we can (stop them).”

He asked the council to have a work session to let the Stop B2H Coalition present to them the updated information on what’s happening with the process. However, the council already has work sessions planned and were unable to schedule what would be a longer session with the coalition. They did say they would like to write up a proclamation announcing they are opposed to seeing the line go anywhere near La Grande.

See complete story in Friday's Observer