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  • 29 Aug 2014

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Water District backers spar with City Club

Supporters of a proposed independent Portland water and sewer district have declined an invitation to appear before a City Club committee studying their ballot measure.

In a Wednesday letter to City Club Executive Director Sam Adams, co-chief petitions Kent Craford and Floy Jones says the announced scope of the study is too narrow and the committee includes seven members with ties to City Hall. Most of the City Council is against the measure.

"How can a group of City Hall insiders make an objective recommendation on a reform initiative intended to reduce the power of City Hall insiders? City Club's water/sewer study strikes us as a committee of foxes charged with reviewing henhouse security," reads the letter, sent on Portland Public Water District letterhead.

The letter also noted that Adams is a former Portland mayor who repeatedly voted for water and sewer rate increases. Craford and Jones are both involved in an ongoing lawsuit that changes the council repeatedly spent water and rate monies on projects not authorized by the City Charter.

"Further, given that you personally served on the City Council and consistently voted for the capital and operations spending, illegal non-mission-critical projects, and associated rate increases under review, we have concerns that, again, a conflict of interest extends to City Club staff and could influence the eventual marketing and representation of the study results," the letter to Adams says.

After the letter was released to the press, Club President John Horvick released a statement defending the organization's objectivity.

"For nearly 100 years and 900 completed studies, the City Club of Portland has been respected for its non-partisan, independent, fact-driven research of public policy issues: We continue that tradition as we examine Portland’s water and sewer rates, criteria and governance issues," Horvick said.

The statement also said the study will continue without the participation of the supporters.

"The City Club of Portland will continue to seek out the view of all sides of the Portland water and sewer rate and governance debate," Horvick said, noting the committee has already scheduled a public forum on the water and sewer issues. It will be held at from 6:00 p.m. to 7:30 p.m. on Tuesday, Oct. 22, in the City Club Commons, 901 S.W. Washington.

The City Club is a longtime civic organization that studies and takes stands on public issues. The study committee was announced in September after the district was proposed. Initiative petitions to place the measure on the May 2014 Primary Election ballot are just now being circulated. The study committee is scheduled to complete its work in March 2014, just before the deadline for filing pages in the Voters Pamphlet for the Primary Election.

In their letter, Craford and Jones criticized the committee for not charged with studying mismanagement of the Portland Water Bureau and the Bureau of Environmental Services by the City Council. The announcement of the committee says it will study why Portland's water rates are higher than other cities, including Phoenix.

"The question is not just what cost drivers pushed Portland water rates higher than those in Phoenix, Arizona, but what systemic City Hall management deficiencies led to those spiraling costs, and what governance changes are necessary to unwind them. Research focused mostly on the former question, especially by this group, is likely to yield little more than apologies for City Hall mismanagement," Craford and Jones said in their letter.

The committee includes 14 members. Another members, Peg Malloy, withdrew last week after her organization received a $4 million grant from the city. Craford and Jones charge that seven of the remaining members cannot be objective because of ties to City Hall.

Although the letter did not name those members, it described them as: "A member whose nonprofit organization is funded by the City; A member whose firm holds City contracts; A prominent City Hall lobbyist; A member whose regulatory agency employer is mandating controversial regulations which impose undue costs on Portland ratepayers; A member who founded an organization that is a leading opponent of the PPWD initiative; a member who has described her job as 'to create missionaries for the Portland Water Bureau,' and who would fall under the initiative's conflict-of-interest provisions in three different categories; A member (the committee chair) whose employer has told us that if they work to oppose the initiative, they will do so through surrogate organizations, i.e. City Club."

The chair is Chris Liddle, a regulator affairs project manager at Portland General Electric.

"We have not reviewed the backgrounds of all study committee participants, but the affiliations listed above are sufficient to validate our concern with the committee's objectivity," says the letter.