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September 10th, 2003 Taylor Clark | News Stories
 

A Friend in the Business

Reservoir advocates accuse Portland's Water Bureau of playing favorites.

     
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IMAGE: STEPHEN VOSS
When it comes to the city's hundred-

million-dollar plan to cover and bury the Mount Tabor and Washington Park open water reservoirs, there's only one name that you need to remember: Montgomery Watson Harza.

The engineering and design firm that has done all of the consulting work on the project, MWH got the green light from Portland's City Council late last month for the next in a long line of contracts to put the reservoirs underground, safely beyond the reach of terrorists and serial urinators. The $6 million deal covers design costs for the subterranean tanks. But the MWH contract also has activists incensed over a relationship they believe is a bit too friendly.

The clash between city officials and groups like Friends of the Reservoirs has had all of the diplomatic calm and mutual respect of a train wreck in recent months. The focal point of this controversy has been the huge cost of the development; while City Commissioner Dan Saltzman has vowed to keep the total down to $77 million, two independent groups claim the actual cost to ratepayers will be between $170 million and $202 million.

MWH, an international water authority with about 40 U.S. offices, stands to get a big chunk of this money. And that, say reservoir supporters, is no coincidence.

Joe Glicker, the engineer who heads Portland's 40-employee MWH division, was once the chief engineer for the Portland Water Bureau. Once Glicker joined with MWH in 1994--after a 14-year career with the city--his new firm immediately scored a contract with the Water Bureau to assess the safety of the open reservoirs. Since then, the MWH contract has been amended eight times, sending total fees collected by the firm up to $2.1 million--more than twice the amount of the original deal.

In the midst of all of these contract alterations, a 2001 city auditor's report appeared that expressed concern that work was being awarded to certain consultants without sufficient competition. The report found some city offices lacked adequate control over consultants' fees, and that in the case of the Water Bureau, "only one consultant is selected for each area of expertise, thus eliminating any opportunity to rotate work."

Then came Sept. 11, 2001. Anti-development advocates claim that once the public-safety panic began, Glicker punched the throttle on the project.

"Sept. 11 was the biggest present anyone in his shoes has ever gotten, and he's been maximizing his advantage," says Jeff Boly, a retired Portland lawyer who is doing pro bono legal work for Friends of the Reservoirs.

"All of the work we did was contemplated under the original scope of our contract," Glicker responds. "Adding amendments is a natural part of what we do."

MWH's presence in the reservoir project has been universal; it has handled the risk assessment, security consulting, engineering, and design. The firm was even charged with gathering public input about the proposal, and their performance has some development opponents furious.

According to Floy Jones of Friends of the Reservoirs, the city has paid MWH a total of $250,000 to facilitate public meetings on the reservoir project. An MWH engineer took minutes at the meetings.

"It was a struggle for us," says Jones. "You'd review the minutes, and they'd say exactly the opposite of what you had said."

As evidence of this phenomenon, Jones points to one April 26 community meeting where reservoir advocates voiced their strong dissent over a design plan that would entail the destruction of Gatehouse 5 at Mount Tabor--the reservoir's most historic feature. When Jones later reviewed the minutes from that meeting, she discovered that the scribe inaccurately wrote that there had been a confused reaction to the plan from Jones' camp.

Glicker claims that development opponents had ample opportunities to amend the minutes, however.

"All of the minutes were written up and given to a committee," Glicker says. "They could make changes if they needed to."

Commissioner Saltzman, who oversees the Water Bureau, says the whole idea of MWH getting a sweetheart deal is preposterous. "I reject any allegation that this was rigged," Saltzman told WW. "Montgomery Watson Harza is one of the top firms around."

Saltzman says MWH probably will not be the firm that gets the huge contract to do the actual construction on the reservoirs.

Jeff Boly will next take the pro-reservoir groups' case before the state's Land Use Board of Appeals in an attempt to halt the project, but Saltzman claims they're only delaying the inevitable. "It's really just a question of how much additional time they add to the process," he says.

 
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