City of Portland
Creates an independent water district: NoWe can’t remember an offseason election that’s generated the level of heartburn caused by this single ballot measure. We’d tell everybody to calm down and drink a glass of water—but that’s what the fight is about.
As WW reported in last week’s cover story (“Talkin’ Bull,” WW, April 23, 2014), the measure to remove City Hall’s control of its water and sewer utilities has sparked a flurry of lies, half-truths and insults exchanged between city officials and the business coalition trying to create a new government called a “public water district.”
The two sides have called each other names, impugned the other side’s motives, and accused their opponents of betraying the civic responsibility to provide clean drinking water at a fair price. When the campaigns arrived in our office to debate, it was all we could do to keep them from screaming over each other.
All this rancor has obscured the fact that Portland voters face their most momentous decision in years. It’s a choice that could change the very nature of city government, and may irreparably damage the system that protects and manages our most precious natural asset—the Bull Run Watershed.
What does the measure do? It takes away any power City Hall has over the Water Bureau and Bureau of Environmental Services, which runs the city’s sewer system. And it hands over that authority to a seven-member elected board.
If we had our way, the measure would lose by a single vote. Why? Because this terrible idea would still be defeated, but the message would be sent as loud as possible to City Hall’s leaders that they have a giant mess to clean up and their defense in the face of criticism has been pathetic.
For years, the City Council has blithely ignored its own charter, state law, and repeated warnings from the city auditor against using revenue from citizens’ water and sewer bills to fund whatever projects caught its fancy. Former Commissioner Randy Leonard may have spearheaded the most outrageous expenses—experimental projects like the environmental show home called the “Water House” and fiascoes like trying to start a cottage industry selling open-air public toilets to other cities. But his colleagues abetted him.
Such irresponsible spending isn’t the main reason our water and sewer bills keep getting ever more eye-popping. The city has billion-dollar obligations—construction projects like the Big Pipe and underground reservoirs—that it couldn’t escape even it were pinching every penny.
But the culture of cavalierly managing ratepayer money has led to a revolt—funded by the businesses paying the biggest bills and tapping into populist outrage. City officials, especially Mayor Charlie Hales, have responded with a toxic blend of bluster and arrogance. Meanwhile, the campaign to fight the measure has been a ghost. Our leaders are now on the cusp of squandering away the city’s control over Bull Run. Quite a legacy.
But here’s the problem with giving in to the temptation to punish City Hall by voting for this measure: The new government agency it proposes has the strong potential to be far worse.
Public utility districts are not inherently flawed. They can be a terrific way for the people to control what the private sector might otherwise gobble up.
The trouble with this measure is that its language makes accountability harder instead of easier. The measure bans most qualified people from serving on the elected board—it’s very likely that the only people who could run are retirees or the independently wealthy, so long as they’ve been away from having anything to do with the water or sewer system for at least six years.
Who’s not restricted from serving? People with a financial stake in the companies that stand to benefit most—and the very companies, such as German silicon wafer manufacturer Siltronic and Portland Bottling Co., bankrolling this campaign.
We’re just as troubled by the fact that the city auditor wouldn’t be allowed to peek at the books of the new district. That’s not more transparency. It’s less.
To earn your vote, the creators of this measure need to offer substantive answers to two questions: Would this new board be more responsible to the public than the current government? And would it lower your utility bills?
The measure’s backers can’t answer either question—we know, because we asked them repeatedly and got either dodgy responses or blank stares. They’re great at complaining how the city has wasted water and sewer money. But they can’t tell you what that spending has done to actually increase rates (answer: not much) or list what future projects they would cut without damaging the system or violating federal laws.
It’s understandable to want to punish misbehaving city officials by taking away their water toys. But it’s worth remembering what’s at stake. Portlanders rightly cherish their uniquely pure drinking water. Handing it over to such an uncertain form of government is cutting off our hose to spite our face.