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Barbs fly ahead of ratepayer court hearing

Mayor Charlie Hales and Commissioner Nick Fish are sparring with critics of water and sewer bureau spending ahead of a hearing a lawsuit that aims to declare some of it illegal.

The suit is scheduled to be heard in Multnomah County Circuit Court on Wednesday. It was brought by three ratepayers who believe the City Council has violated the City Charter by spending ratepayer funds on projects that are not directly related to the primary missions of the Water Bureau and the Bureau of Environmental Services.

The Mayors Office sent out a press release Tuesday afternoon that said the suit was politically motivated. It quoted Hales and Fish as saying those behind the suit are also supporting the measure to create an independently-elected Portland Public Water Distict that will appear on the May 20 Primary Election ballot.

“The anti-environment funders behind this suit are also behind a ballot measure to create a new layer of government to run the environmental services and water utilities," Hales was quoted as saying in the release. “If the facts aren’t with you, and the law isn’t with you, unlimited corporate money is a wonderful thing. It can be used to attack Portland's environmental investments again and again and again. If you don’t like green programs, these are the best attacks money can buy.”

“This politically motivated lawsuit lacks merit, and is costing valuable taxpayer money to defend,” Fish, who is in charge of the water and sewer bureaus, was quoted as saying in the release. “We look forward to a decision on the merits of these claims.”

But John DiLorenzo, the lawyer representing the ratepayers, says Fish and Hales are the ones acting politically — and he says the release violates state election laws against using public resources for political campaigns.

"That reads like a campaign press release to me," says DiLorenzo. "It's talking about a measure that's on the ballot."

The release also defends the legality of the spending, but says both Hales and Fish have taken steps to address concerns about the two bureaus. Hales first budget includes combined rate increases of around 5 percent, far less than the double-digit increases of many previous years. And since being assigned the water bureau, Fish has sold the controversial Water House demonstration project and worked with Commissoner Steve Novick to have the council approve a five-year agreement with the statewide Citizens Utility Board to review the budgets of both agencies and make recommendations to reduce costs.

And the release says the suit targets justifiable environmental and other programs, an accusation DiLorenzo denies.

The complete release follows:

PRESS RELEASE

Tuesday, FEB. 11, 2014

PORTLAND, OR – Multnomah County Judge Stephen Bushong will hear oral arguments Wednesday in a lawsuit challenging the City Council’s ability to protect our watershed, assist low-income ratepayers, and offer assistance to New Orleans in the wake of Hurricane Katrina.

Mayor Charlie Hales and Commissioner Nick Fish said they are pleased with the judge’s decision to hear the arguments.

While the City has done its best to move this lawsuit forward since it was first filed several years ago, repeated delays by the plaintiffs have stalled proceedings since last summer. The high-powered corporate lobbyist behind this lawsuit also represents the chief petitioners in a corporate-funded ballot measure to strip the City of its Environmental Services and Water bureaus.

“We have been pushing to finally bring this in front of a judge for a year,” said Mayor Charlie Hales, “and are glad that the plaintiffs are, at long last, letting the case move forward.”

Wednesday’s summary judgment hearing will address four of the contested expenditures, and will resolve the question of whether the City Council acted within its Charter-based authority in approving those investments. Judge Bushong is not expected to rule from the bench. A decision is expected later in February or in March.

“The anti-environment funders behind this suit are also behind a ballot measure to create a new layer of government to run the environmental services and water utilities," Hales said. “If the facts aren’t with you, and the law isn’t with you, unlimited corporate money is a wonderful thing. It can be used to attack Portland's environmental investments again and again and again. If you don’t like green programs, these are the best attacks money can buy.”

The City’s attorneys requested summary judgment on four items in the suit to get a sense for how the court would rule on the other items.

“This politically motivated lawsuit lacks merit, and is costing valuable taxpayer money to defend” said Commissioner Fish, who has led the City’s two utility bureaus since last June. “We look forward to a decision on the merits of these claims.”

The lawsuit attacks dozens of City Council investments, including programs to preserve our watersheds, protect the Willamette River, provide programs to help to low-income ratepayers, and offer assistance to New Orleans in the wake of Hurricane Katrina.

At issue on Wednesday will be: the Bureau of Environmental Services joining the Trust for Public Land and the Parks Bureau in purchasing River View Cemetery land to restore the natural area, preserve streams to protect fish in the Willamette River and naturally manage stormwater; the Water Bureau’s expenditures to protect pipes when light rail construction was completed downtown; the Water Bureau’s contribution to the Portland Loos restrooms and drinking water stations; and the use of utility money as part of the funding for the now-repealed public campaign finance program, which was supported by all City agencies.

While defending the legality of past Council actions, both Hales and Fish also have taken steps to address concerns about the two bureaus.

Under Hales' leadership last spring, the Council adopted a combined rate increase under 5 percent. Under Fish's leadership as Water and Environmental Services Commissioner, the controversial "water house" has been sold, the Citizens’ Utility Board has been invited in to provide residential ratepayer advocacy, and the combined rate increase proposed by the City’s two utilities is again less than 5 percent.

"Prudent oversight of the sewer, stormwater, and water systems is good," Hales said. "Corporate attacks on the country’s best urban water system and the nation’s greenest sewer system aren't."

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