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Our Opinion: New water, sewer district is not answer

On the surface, the idea of creating a water and sewer district in Portland has appeal. After all, what could be more democratic than having elected representatives whose sole function is to oversee a specific area of government spending?

We could even envision a time when we might support a measure that removes the water and sewer bureaus from the City Council’s control and places them under another board. But this isn’t the time — and this certainly isn’t the measure.

The proposal in question will appear on Portland’s May 20 ballot as Measure 26-156. It is carelessly written and raises the possibility of many unintended consequences — so much so that voters should say no to this particular proposal even if they sympathize with the underlying objective.

The push to amend the city charter and create a water and sewer district with an elected board of directors has gained substantial support due the actions of former city Commissioner Randy Leonard, who oversaw the water bureau. After a 2011 audit found the water bureau had spent millions of dollars on projects that had nothing to do with the delivery of water, Leonard came under withering criticism for his water-related decisions.

Even after responsibility for the Portland Water Bureau and the Bureau of Environmental Services was turned over to Commissioner Nick Fish last year, activists remained unsatisfied and began the initiative campaign. They argue that a water and sewer district would put responsibility for the city’s water and sewer services into the hands of “representatives of the people of the city of Portland who have no obligations or allegiances other than to the operation, financing, protection and enhancement of the sewer and waters systems of the city.”

While we agree that the water bureau needed better oversight, we believe the proposed measure would complicate the system, have a detrimental effect on the management of these two agencies and could even result in rate hikes rather than reductions.

Flaws in this measure were highlighted by Multnomah County Circuit Judge Leslie Roberts, who reviewed the ballot title last fall. Roberts pointed out that the proposed measure has poorly defined voting districts, based loosely on the boundaries of Portland Public Schools. Roberts raised the obvious question of who would represent the residents of Portland who live east of Interstate 205 — in the David Douglas, Reynolds, Parkrose and Centennial school districts.

As for the elected representatives, the measure has far too many disqualifications for eligible board members.

If you’re serving on your local school board, you’re out.

Hold any other elected office? Out.

Have you contracted or worked for the city in a position related to the provision of water or sewer services? You’re out as well.

The list goes on, effectively eliminating many people who might actually have a clue of how to run a water district.

Management of the Portland Water Bureau’s $256.5 million budget and the Bureau of Environmental Service’s $426 million budget is no small task. Yet, this measure would eliminate the possibility that someone who had valuable experience managing those agencies could serve on a newly formed water and sewer board.

In opposing this measure, the Portland Business Alliance pointed out that the initiative would require the city to issue bonds for the new entity, but the city would not have the authority to set rates to repay those bonds.

We concede that the current system — one that places these bureaus under the authority of a single commissioner — is also flawed. The Portland Utility Review Board and the Citizens’ Utility Board have input into the direction of these agencies, but neither has any real enforcement powers.

Those flaws, however, can be addressed without creating an independent district. Yes, Portland’s mayor and city commissioners should pay close attention to the frustration that led to this particular ballot measure. But Portland voters should reject Measure 26-156 and instead require their current elected officials to provide the oversight needed to avoid mistakes of the past.