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Our Opinion: Let's get water, sewer bureau changes right

City Commissioner Nick Fish hasn’t had an easy time being in charge of Portland’s water and sewer bureaus.

Just prior to or during Fish’s one-year tenure as water commissioner, the bureaus have dealt with lawsuits over loos, fights on the sale of surplus property, controversy about a luxury office building, a ballot attempt to wrest control of the two bureaus from the city and, most recently, the need for a historic citywide boil-water alert.

Through it all, Fish has tackled each issue and has said he intends to appoint a blue ribbon commission to review the City Council’s oversight of two bureaus that used to be seldom noticed, but lately have become a constant topic of public concern.

Fish’s commitment to restoring the public’s trust in the city’s management of the Water Bureau and Bureau of Environmental Services is sincere. We commend him for proceeding with the blue ribbon commission, even after voters rejected a proposed water district on the May ballot. That commission can be effective, however, only if Fish appoints genuinely independent members and if Fish and other city leaders empower the commission to consider serious proposals for better oversight of the bureaus.

The commission is expected to make its recommendations in the fall, which means it will work on a short timeline. Its efforts may be partly informed by another independent body — the Citizens Utility Board — that also is providing input into decisions made by the two bureaus.

CUB already has issued a report to the City Council saying that it needs to convince taxpayers their money is being spent in the wisest and most efficient manner.

Citizens want to see rates drop, but the prospect of that happening is highly unlikely. Portland ratepayers are burdened with one of the highest combined water and sewer bills in the country, and to his credit, Fish has made an effort to keep rate increases under 5 percent. Both he and the Citizens Utility Board, however, are dubious about the city’s ability to hold future increases under that threshold.

Among the projects that will add to future bills are new underground storage tanks, an earthquake-resistant water pipe across the Willamette River and an impending bill for Superfund cleanup of the Portland Harbor.

Given the unavoidable upward pressure on rates, it is of utmost importance that Portland residents have confidence in the management of the water and sewer bureaus. Such confidence can be restored if the blue ribbon commission is allowed to bring forth true alternatives to the current method of oversight.

The Portland Business Alliance and Portland City Club have issued their own reports that suggest possible options for reform. One idea is to have the entire City Council serve as a water authority, thereby taking control of the two bureaus away from a single commissioner.

Many of the recent controversies involving the Water Bureau stemmed from decisions made by former Commissioner Randy Leonard, who was in charge of that bureau. Spreading the responsibility for major policy decisions among four commissioners and the mayor would reduce the chances for similar mistakes in the future.

This is but one alternative to be considered by the blue ribbon commission, but the key is for Fish and city leaders to give commission members wide latitude as they make their recommendations. Then, Fish and fellow commissioners must take those suggestions quite seriously if they hope to quell future controversies about two bureaus that could use a break from the headlines.

Editor's note: The original version of this editorial erroneously stated that Randy Leonard was in charge of both the Water Bureau and the Bureau of Environmental Services. Leonard was only in charge of the Water Bureau.