A proposal to strengthen independent oversight of water and sewer rates is circulating in Portland City Hall, but at least one city commissioner is deeply skeptical.

The proposal comes from Dave Johnson, a former member of the Portland Utility Review Board, the existing city-sanctioned volunteer panel that is supposed to offer independent oversight of Portland's water and sewer rates. PURB, the creation of former Mayor Vera Katz, has no actual power to challenge City Council, which is the body that currently sets water and sewer rates.

On the heels of a controversial audit of spending at the city's Bureau of Environmental Services and Water Bureau, Johnson would like to change that dynamic. The audit showed the water and sewer bureaus frequently spend ratepayer money on projects that are unrelated or indirectly related to providing water and sewer services.

"Tapping utility ratepayer revenue for general fund spending has become more appealing to city politicians as it has become ever more difficult to raise taxes," Johnson wrote in a prepared statement about his proposal.

That proposal -- to create a Portland Utility Panel, or PUP -- would include:

  • Formation of a three-person volunteer panel appointed by the city auditor and confirmed by city commissioners.
  • Tasking city commissioners and bureau directors with proposing budgets and rates.
  • Giving the panel "complete and absolute" authority to approve rates, fees and spending.
  • Allocating funding for the PUP to have three full-time staff people.

Commissioner Randy Leonard is in charge of the Water Bureau. He spearheaded several of the projects that City Auditor LaVonne Griffin-Valade highlighted in her audit as examples of non-utility projects that got utility money. That list includes the renovation of a city owned building for the Rose Festival and an eco-friendly model home to showcase sustainable design.

His chief-of-staff, Ty Kovatch, says he's not sure what problem the proposed panel is designed to resolve. Rather than strengthen oversight, the panel shifts responsibility for water and sewer rates to an unelected body not accountable to voters, he says. He also said a federal mandate is the primary reason water rates have increased. "No panel is going to change that requirement," Kovatch says.

It's important to note here that the proposal went before Portland's Charter Commission on Wednesday night. If the Charter Commission approved of Johnson's idea, the commission could put the proposal to Portland voter's directly, without the support of city commissioners.