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City wants to appeal 'reasonably related' standard in water, sewer suit

The city of Portland wants to appeal a Multnomah County judge's ruling that water and sewer spending must be "reasonably related" to services provided by the two city utilities.

City attorneys filed a request with Multnomah County Circuit Judge Stephen K. Bushong on Thursday that he enter an order about his early ruling in an ongoing lawsuit on water and sewer spending. Bushong established the "reasonably related" standard in four examples agreed to by both sides, but has not yet entered a judgement that can be appealed.

City attorneys have argued the City Council has more discretion that Bushong declared. Although attorneys for water and sewer ratepayers who sued the city believe it has less discretion, they want to see the suit proceed though other expenditures before deciding whether to appeal.

Commissioner Nick Fish, who is in charge of both the water and sewer bureaus, says obtaining an appeals court ruling on the standard now will save both parties time and attorneys fees.

"The goal here is to get a clear ruling from an appellate court about the standard for ratepayer spending so there is not a lot of unnecessary spending on legal fees," says Fish.

But John DiLorenzo, an attorney representing ratepayers in the suit, says the potential appeal is merely an attempt to prevent more embarrassing internal documents from being released before the May 20 primary Election vote on the ballot measure to create an independently elected water and sewer district.

"This is just hypocrisy. Mayor Charlie Hales and Commissioner Nick Fish says there's new leadership at the water and sewer board, but they just want to delay the public from learning anything more about how their money is spent for years," says DiLorenzo, adding that he will file a response objecting to the request soon.

In the suit, the city has been arguing the council has the final word in how water and sewer funds are spent, except in cases of fraud and abuse. DiLorenzo has been arguing the primary purpose of the spending must be for the delivery of water and sewer services.

Bushong has ruled that some spending, including ratepayer money spent on the now-defunct Portland public campaign finance program, was not justified. But he has upheld other challenged expenditures, including sewer money spent to help acquire part of an undeveloped cemetery in Southwest Portland for stormwater management.