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Group proposing new board leery of study committee

by: TRIBUNE PHOTO BY JAIME VALDEZ - Measure co-sponsors Kent Craford (pictured) and Floy Jones have snubbed the City Club.The fight over the proposed Portland Public Water District is under way even though the measure has not yet qualified for the May 2014 primary election ballot.

The measure would take away control of the water and sewer bureaus from the City Council and place them under the control of an independently elected board. Although supporters have just begun circulating their initiative petitions, the measure already is opposed by most of the council and several environmental activists and groups.

The most recent skirmish is happening at the City Club of Portland, which studies and takes stands on such issues. In an unprecedented affront to the longstanding civic organization, the measure’s supporters are refusing to be interviewed by a committee appointed to study the initiative and recommend whether to support or oppose it.

In an Oct. 16 letter to City Club Executive Director Sam Adams, co-chief petitioners Kent Craford and Floy Jones said the committee cannot be objective because half of the 14 members have ties to the city. In some cases, they work for companies that have contracts with the city.

“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.

In response, City Club President John Horvick issued a statement expressing shock that anyone would question the organization’s objectivity.

“For nearly 100 years and 900 completed studies, the City Club of Portland has been respected for its nonpartisan, 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.

But in fact, some of the committee members have direct interests in the measure.

For example, Don Francis, co-founder of EcoTech LLC, founded Willamette River Keepers, an environmental organization that already has come out against it.

Portland State University professor Catherine Howells teaches a course on the city’s water system through the university’s Capstone Program, which lists the Portland Water Bureau as a sponsor. Howells praises the bureau staff in an online video about the class, saying, “As I tell the Water Bureau, my job is to create missionaries for you.”

And Pete Farrelly works for the Oregon Health Authority, which is enforcing the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency rule requiring Portland to cover its open water reservoirs. Jones co-founded Friends of the Reservoir, a grassroots organization opposed to covering the reservoirs. Craford has testified against the project as a lobbyist for large water users. Several are supporting the measure, in part because of the cost of complying with the rule.

Despite that, Horvick says the committee will go ahead with the study. It is scheduled to complete its work in time for the City Club to take a stand just before the deadline for submitting arguments to the voters pamphlet for the next year’s primary election.

Not the last word

If the supporters qualify the measure for the ballot, it’s unlikely the City Club will be the deciding factor in the election. After all, the organization endorsed the City Council’s plan to fluoridate Portland’s water earlier this year. It was repealed by the voters by a 20 percent margin in the May 19 special election.

But a recent opinion issued by Multnomah County Circuit Judge Leslie Roberts suggests the committee will find much about this measure to question. Roberts wrote a new ballot title for the measure after the original one drafted by the city attorney’s office was challenged by both the co-petitioners and an opponents. Roberts also took the unusual step of issuing an opinion explaining the title.

In the ballot title, Roberts made it clear the elected water and sewer board could issue bonds and create public debt without any oversight from the City Council or city auditor’s office.

In her opinion, Roberts suggested that some Portlanders might not be allowed to vote in the board elections. She noted the measure says the board shall be zoned like the Portland School Board, which does not cover the entire city.

Craford and Jones disagree with some of Roberts’ conclusions, saying the measure charges the council with setting the boundaries of the zones. But some committee and club members are likely to view such uncertainties as a reason to oppose the measure.

And they will give the measure’s opponents something to talk about other than Portland’s high water, sewer and stormwater rates, which is the main reason the measure was filed in the first place. The council has approved double-digit increases for the combined rates for years, in large part to pay the $1.4 billion cost of the Combined Sewer Overflow project undertaken by the sewer bureau.

But Craford and Jones also argue the rates have been going up because the council has been spending hundreds of millions of dollars on projects that are not authorized by the city charter.

They are involved in an ongoing lawsuit in Multnomah County Circuit Court to declare such spending illegal and require the council to reimburse the water and sewer bureaus with other funds. Projects being challenged range from the purchase of natural lands for storm water management and the city’s current spending on the Portland Harbor Superfund cleanup.

That is why environmental activists and organizations oppose the measure. They fear the new board will curtail such programs, which they support. Craford and Jones say the board will still support environmental programs, although, as the suit shows, they question some of them.

The measure’s supporters have until Jan. 21 to collect around 30,000 signatures of valid Portland voters to qualify the measure for the May 20 primary election.

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