West Linn just wants to be heard.
That has been the refrain, again and again, over the past few years in continued debates over the future of Clackamas County-managed wastewater treatment not only within city limits but also in neighboring municipalities. The debate has taken many twists and turns — from lawsuits to legislative efforts, blowups at meetings and, last November, the consolidation of two county service districts into one — but through it all West Linn has attempted to play a mediating role while also insisting that it needs more of a voice.
The West Linn City Council made that clear during a work session Monday, May 15, which was attended by representatives of Clackamas County's Water Environment Services (WES) — the arm that oversees all wastewater services in northern Clackamas County. While the talks of how to address a treatment capacity issue that dominated 2016 are largely settled, West Linn councilors said they felt even more out of the loop under the new consolidated system which temporarily eliminated advisory committees.
"We're just pushed aside and have absolutely no say in the future of everything," said City Council President Brenda Perry, who has long served as West Linn's point person on wastewater matters. "Decisions are being made very rapidly for the future going forward, and we have no say."
Wastewater treatment in northern Clackamas County has long been divided into two districts: the Tri-City Service District, which serves Oregon City, Gladstone and West Linn, and Clackamas County Service District No. 1 (also known as CCSD 1) which covers Happy Valley, Milwaukie and parts of unincorporated Clackamas County. The Tri-City Water Pollution Control Plant is located in Oregon City, and CCSD 1 is served by the Kellogg Facility in Milwaukie.
Last November, the Clackamas County Board of Commissioners unanimously approved a proposal to combine those two service districts. While it was not an official merger, the budgets, operations and assets of Tri-City and CCSD 1 were combined under WES. According to a memo from County Administrator Don Krupp to the City Council, WES was expected to vote Thursday, May 18, to bring one more body into the new partnership: the Surface Water Management Agency of Clackamas County (SWMACC), which handles surface water management in areas of the county that drain to the Tualatin River.
"What we're talking about is the integration of three service districts to work together and make it more simple and effective," Krupp said at the council meeting. "I am very interested in getting a structure in place for a revitalized advisory committee to serve the new partnership, and expect a proposal sometime in July."
For West Linn, a seat at the advisory level is the bare minimum expectation. What the city and its neighbors continue to advocate for is a governance structure that provides actual decision-making power – particularly on sensitive issues like rate hikes to support infrastructure that would service a growing population within certain areas of the district.
"I think the request for actual governance, for cities to actually have a voting voice and some control of what happens, is appropriate," City Councilor Bob Martin said. "(We could) expand from just an advisory committee to something more like a board of directors."
WES Director Greg Geist questioned the wisdom of a change in governance, particularly in how it might affect WES' bond rating for future improvement projects.
"(I'm concerned about) going from a governance structure that's been in place for 30-plus years and has an exemplary track record, to divvying it out to cities with no track record for the past 30 years and some would say a very spotty record for retail services."
In the end, Mayor Russ Axelrod emphasized that West Linn's primary concern is the concept of growth paying for itself.
"Particularly for those of us cities who aren't really growing," Axelrod said. "The concept of regionalization is something we support … but it still has to be growth paying for itself."
He added that the cities and county should consider meeting in some form of a "wastewater summit."
"We really do need to have some kind of discussion," Axelrod said. "I don't care how busy you are. Everyone is really busy."