Conflict-of-interest rules would eliminate thousands of hopefuls

by: TRIBUNE FILE PHOTO - Some of the supporters of the Portland Public Water District are opposed to capping reservoirs at Mt. Tabor and Washington parks. Yet many experts in such big capital improvement projects would be barred from running for the board. Backers of an initiative to strip Portland’s water and sewer agencies from City Council control went to great lengths to prevent conflicts of interest in their proposed Portland Public Water District.

Critics say they went too far, even violating the Constitution.

The ballot measure by Kent Craford and Floy Jones, now being circulated by petitioners on the streets of Portland, would create a seven-member elected board to run the two city utilities. Strict conflict-of-interest provisions would bar tens of thousands of Portlanders from running for that board:

• Nobody working for PGE and Pacific Power could run, despite their expertise in utility matters.

• Employees of 11 of Portland’s largest engineering, design and construction companies couldn’t run. Given the outcry about reservoir-capping projects and other costly capital improvements proposed by the water and sewer bureaus, that might limit the pool of board members with expertise on such matters.

• Perhaps most galling to critics, citizens with insights into the inner workings of the sewer and water agencies couldn’t run, including members of the Portland Utility Review Board and the city’s sewer and water budget advisory committees.

During the past several years, Craford’s work on behalf of large Water Bureau customers has exposed questionable spending by the two city bureaus, including pet projects pushed by city councilors that are unrelated to core water and sewer services.

Craford now wants fresh leadership for the bureaus.

“We’ve got too many people with their hands in the cookie jar,” he says.

Anyone working for companies that have contracts with the two bureaus pose a potential conflict of interest, he says, so they should be barred from running for the board.

Portland has more than 500,000 residents, he reasons. “Maybe we’ll ‘conflict out’ 20,000. So be it.”

But the conflict-of-interest provisions, which would be written into the city charter, cast a wide net. A public records request revealed the Bureau of Environmental Services has had about 325 different contractors in recent years and the Water Bureau has more than 400. The list ranges from the city’s largest employers, including Fred Meyer and Oregon Health & Science University, to small companies like Honey Bucket — which knows a thing or two about sewage.

Employees of the Audubon Society of Portland or Friends of Trees couldn’t run, or even those working for the Portland Business Alliance.

Craford says paid petitioners are now gathering about 1,000 signatures a day, making it likely the initiative will make the May 2014 ballot.

Barred from running

Audubon Society Conservation Director Bob Sallinger recalls arguing about the initiative with Craford, who retorted that Sallinger can just run for the board. But Sallinger later realized he’s barred from running — in three different ways.

Audubon has a small contract to do bird surveys for the Bureau of Environmental Services. He’s an elected board member of the East Multnomah Soil and Water Conservation District. And he volunteers on the sewer agency’s Budget Advisory Committee

“Those are the kinds of people that you want” on the board, Sallinger says. “I consider myself a watchdog.”

Craford says Sallinger’s multiple hats and ties to the sewer bureau illustrate why he should be ineligible.

“Bob has tremendous conflicts, which should raise a lot of alarms,” Craford says.

Gordon Feighner worked until recently for the nonprofit Citizens Utility Board, which serves as a watchdog for Oregon residential ratepayers in matters relating to electric, gas and telephone utilities. He also serves on the Portland Utility Review Board, which would make him ineligible to run for the new water board.

“It would help to have somebody who has experience in utility regulation and who knows how rates are set,” Feighner says.

Craford says the Portland Utility Review Board once was a “fantastic” body that truly served the interests of ratepayers and was a “check on the city.” But the board morphed in recent years into a “bobble-headed lap dog,” he says.

That and the two citizen’s budget advisory committees were stacked with “political hacks” by former Mayor Sam Adams and former city Commissioner Randy Leonard, Craford says.

Further questions

A recent ruling by Multnomah County Circuit Judge Leslie Roberts cast a cloud over the proposed water district board in two other ways.

The submitted charter language suggests the elected board members shall come from districts patterned after Portland School Board districts. But that excludes most of East Portland, home to the David Douglas, Centennial and Parkrose school districts. Craford dismisses that concern, saying the City Council can set the boundaries so East Portland residents aren’t disenfranchised.

A bigger issue may be Roberts’ conclusion that anyone elected to the Portland Public Water District Board for a three-year term couldn’t seek re-election, because then they’d be elected officials — who are barred from running.

Craford calls that opinion “preposterous,” and notes the initiative was written by respected attorney Greg Chaimov. Chaimov is a former Oregon legal counsel, who oversaw a whole office of attorneys who write state laws and draft amendments.

Roberts doesn’t see much wiggle room, based on the charter language, that would allow people to run for re-election. “No available interpretation of the language would have a different result, absent bald judicial amendment,” she wrote.

Who could run?

Feighner is concerned that unpaid volunteers on citizen committees couldn’t run, but employees of big commercial water customers, who are financing the ballot measure, can. “I can see how they wouldn’t want to exclude large water users from serving on the board.”

Sallinger is more blunt. “These people have the money to buy an election.”

Craford scoffs at the notion that Portland residents will vote in lockstep with big business interests. He’s heard similar fears from business groups that the board could be stacked with environmentalists, which indicates to him the board could achieve the right balance.

No matter who wins, Craford says, at least the board will avoid the “constant tension” faced by city councilors who treat sewer and water ratepayers as a source of money to fund their pet projects.

City Commissioner Nick Fish, who oversees the water and sewer bureaus, says the initiative distorts the notion of conflict of interest.

“A conflict of interest means you have a personal pecuniary interest in the outcome and therefore you can’t be objective,” says Fish, a lawyer.

Citizen volunteers on boards who give feedback on bureaus’ budgets and operations don’t have a conflict, Fish says. In contrast, an employee of a large water customer like Siltronic, the German silicon wafer company that works closely with Craford, does have a personal interest, Fish says.

He questions the “constitutional basis” for disqualifying so many people from running for an elective office. “At some point,” Fish says, “it would be litigated.”

People ineligible for proposed Portland Public Water District board:

• Employees of any company or nonprofit that had a sewer or water bureau contract the prior six years

• Any citizen serving the prior three years on the Portland Utility Review Board or the city water or sewer budget advisory committees

• Anyone who worked for the Water Bureau or Bureau of Environmental Services the prior six years

• Any current elected official

• Any current city of Portland or water district employee

• Any city commissioner’s staffer who administered the water or sewer bureaus in prior six years

The contractor provision means employees of the following firms couldn't run:

• Private utilities: Portland General Electric, Pacific Power

• Other large employers: American Medical Response,

Columbia Helicopters, Fred Meyer, Legacy Emanuel Hospital, Miller Paint, Office Depot, Oregon Health and Sciences University,


• Engineering, design, construction: Black & Veatch, Brown and Caldwell, CH2M Hill Engineers, David Evans and Associates, Emerick Construction, Hoffman Construction, Kittelson & Associates, KPFF, OTAK, Skanska, Stacey and Witbeck

• Environmental groups: Audubon Society, Columbia Slough Watershed Council, The Freshwater Trust, Friends of Trees,

Wetlands Conservancy, Bonneville Environmental Foundation

• Other nonprofits: American Red Cross, Columbia Corridor Association, Portland Business Alliance, St. Andrew Catholic Church, Tears of Joy Theater, Central City Concern, Human Solutions