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City taps a dozen for water oversight

Commission meets July 15 to look at water bureau, BES


Representatives of three organizations that have criticized the City Council’s management of the water and sewer bureaus have been appointed to a commission that could recommend changes in their oversight.

Mayor Charlie Hales and Water Commissioner Nick Fish announced the appointment of a 12-member Utility Oversight Blue Ribbon Commission last Thursday.

The appointment keeps a promise Hales and Fish made during the fight over the proposed Portland Public Water District on the May 20 primary election ballot.

They promised to appoint a commission to review the management of the Water Bureau and Bureau of Environmental Services and recommend needed changes if voters defeated the measure. It lost overwhelmingly.

The first meeting of the commission will be from 4 to 6 p.m. on July 15 in the Lovejoy Room at Portland City Hall.

One member who questioned the council’s management of the bureaus in the past is Chris Liddle, a Portland General Electric manager who chaired a Portland City Club study committee on the measure. The committee issued a report adopted by the civic organization that recommended a “no” vote on the measure. But the report also criticized the council’s handling of both bureaus. It said the Portland ratepayers had lost confidence in the ability of the council to manage the bureaus, in large part because of controversies over spending water funds on projects not directly related to the core missions of the water bureau. The projects included the remodeling of the new Rose Festival headquarters, the experimental Water House that was later sold at a loss, and the public toilets known as the Portland Loos.

To overcome the problem, the report recommended the council create a water and sewer authority to manage the bureaus. It would consist of an odd number of board members appointed by the commissioner who oversees the bureaus. Although the council would continue to set policy for the bureaus, the new board would recommend annual rates that would either be approved or rejected by the council.

A similar member is Marion Haynes, vice president government relations and economic development at the Portland Business Alliance, which also studied the measure. Although the PBA remained officially neutral on the measure, it issued a memo that reflected many of the concerns in the City Club report, and also recommended a management change. It proposed changing the city charter to turn the bureaus into municipal corporations that would be managed by the entire council acting in the capacity of a board of directors, separate from their traditional duties. Rates would be set and capital improvements developed by a citizen advisory commission representing businesses and ratepayers. Four of the five council votes would be required to override the commission’s recommendations.

Hales and Fish appointed Janice Thompson, a consumer advocate for the Citizen’s Utility Board, a statewide ratepayer watchdog organization. The council has contracted with CUB to provide additional oversight of the bureaus, and Thompson is assigned to that task. Although CUB has not recommended changes to their management structure, Thompson criticized the council’s handling of them when she testified at a May 22 utility rate hearing.

“The City Council has spent dollars from public utilities in ways that were not in compliance with the city charter,” Thompson told the council.

The other members of the commission have experience in government, utilities and the environment.

They include: Chairman Dwight Holton, a former U.S. attorney for Oregon who serves as chief executive officer of Lines for Life, a nonprofit organization that fights substance abuse and suicide; Vice Chairman Issac Dixon, associate vice president for Human Resources at Lewis & Clark College; Barbara Byrd, secretary-treasurer of the Oregon AFL-CIO; Christine Chin Ryan, founder and president of Synergy Consulting Inc.; Rob Doneker, a registered professional engineer; Bill Gaffi, general manager of Clean Water Services, the wastewater and surface water management utility which serves more than 550,000 customers in Washington County and parts of Clackamas and Multnomah counties; Kendra Smith, a restoration ecologist with 21 years of experience working throughout the Willamette Basin; Brian Stahl, water division manager for the city of Gresham; and Lawrence Wallack, a former dean of the College of Urban and Public Affairs at Portland State University, who has more than 40 years of experience in various aspects of public health.

Kent Craford, a chief co-petitioner of the failed ballot measure, says the commission includes too many City Hall insiders, but he will give it the benefit of the doubt for now. Floy Jones, the other chief co-petitioner, said none of the members have actively dogged the bureaus for any length of time, however. She questioned why Hales and Fish hadn’t appointed more vocal critics, such as Regna Merritt, a longtime Bull Run advocate.

The commission will convene in July and will present recommendations to the Portland City Council in a work session to be held in November. All meetings will be open to the public. The public will be invited to testify at two commission meetings.

The city has contracted with community engagement and planning firm Cogan Owens Cogan to facilitate the meetings and assist the commission in writing its final report.

Updates on the commission’s activities and schedule will be available on Fish’s website: http://www.portlandonline.com/fish/index.cfm?c=65200