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Portland reworks its utility oversight panels

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JAIME VALDEZ - Workers install a new bioswale on Southeast Division Street. The Bureau of Environmental Services has pioneered such 'green streets' approaches to addressing storm drainage. The city of Portland expects to have a new citizen panel on board by September to oversee its embattled Water Bureau and Bureau of Environmental Services.

Called the Portland Utility Board, the volunteer panel will replace three other citizen panels: the Portland Utility Review Board and separate Budget Advisory Committees for the water and sewer bureaus.

On Wednesday, city commissioners held a public hearing on an ordinance to create the new panel and eliminate three others. City commissioners expect to formally adopt the ordinance in the next week or two.

The ordinance was sponsored by Commissioner Nick Fish, based on the recommendations of the Utility Oversight Blue Ribbon Commission, appointed by Fish and led by former federal prosecutor Dwight Holton.

Fish and Mayor Charlie Hales promised to appoint a blue-ribbon commission on utility reform after critics qualified an initiative measure for last May’s ballot that would have stripped the two city utilities from direct control by the City Council. The initiative came in response to several spending scandals at the bureaus.

Voters overwhelmingly rejected the measure, though a more recent scandal over cost overruns propelled Dean Marriott to leave his post running the Bureau of Environmental Services.

Fish and other ordinance supporters say the Portland Utility Board will be more effective than the three citizen panels it replaces, because it will have two dedicated budget analysts and will meet year-round.

Floy Jones, leader of Friends of the Reservoirs and a vocal critic of the city's management of the two utilities, said she didn't see much difference in the new oversight panel.

But the PUB isn't the only change pushed by Fish, who Mayor Charlie Hales put in charge of the two bureaus after most of the scandals came to light. Fish also enlisted the Citizens Utility Board to provide independent monitoring of the city's management of the bureaus. It was a new role for CUB, a respected nonprofit that represents electric and other utility ratepayers statewide.

Janice Thompson, the Citizens Utility Board consumer advocate hired to monitor city management of the two bureaus, said Wednesday that CUB will serve as one leg of a three-legged stool to provide citizen accountability for the bureaus. The other two legs are the City Council and the new Public Utility Board.

Fish praised the work of CUB, giving it credit for recommending “full cost recovery” of one of the Systems Development Charges levied by the bureaus, resulting in a lower rate increase.

Mike Houck, leader of the Urban Greenspaces Institute, said he fears that critics’ lawsuit and ballot initiative have had a “chilling effect” on innovation at the two bureaus. Houck has been a big advocate of the Bureau of Environmental Services' pioneering work to address storm drainage through "green" alternatives, such as natural bioswales, which reduced the need to install more and larger underground storm sewer pipes.

The PUB will have nine members, appointed by the mayor. Fish said he’ll post applications to join the panel on his website.

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@SteveLawTrib