City Commissioner Nick Fish says he will no longer allow the City Council to approve large water and sewer contracts without public debate, following reporting by WW about cost overruns on an office building for sewer workers.
Fish, who oversees the Water and Environmental Services bureaus, today moved two contracts—one valued at $1 million, the other at $395,000—onto the City Council's regular agenda. Both contracts had been on the council's consent agenda, where items considered routine are passed without public discussion.
Fish's policy change comes in direct response to cost increases on an office building for sewer engineers that tripled in cost to $12.6 million. (This number is updated, after officials in Fish's office acknowledged this afternoon that accounting documents provided by the bureau were $1 million low.)
WW revealed on April 30 that between 2010 and 2012, the council agreed to keep spending more money on the project, and did so without debate.
"As a result of what I've learned about this project," Fish tells WW, "I've already directed my bureaus to put any contract over $500,000 on the regular agenda. We're not waiting for any reform effort. We're implementing a change now."
Fish says his "blood pressure is going through the roof" as he looks at the building's cost increases.
"As your newspaper reported last week, It came to council 5 times on consent," Fish says. "That will no longer happen under my direction."
Kent Craford, co-petitioner on a ballot measure to remove control of the city's water and sewer services from the City Council, says the change isn't enough.
"That's good," Craford says. "That's a good start. He should further require that no projects such as that can be approved as an emergency ordinance. Some of Portland's largest, most expensive projects have been pushed through on that basis—robbing ratepayers of their right to fully vet these projects before they're fully approved."
Craford and co-petitioner Floy Jones have demanded an investigation by the Multnomah County District Attorney of whether contracting laws were violated on the sewer office building.
KOIN-TV reported last night that the city architect on the project went to work for the contractor, Skylab Architecture.
Fish says the call for a criminal investigation is "political grandstanding.
"I have no evidence of any lawbreaking," he says. "Nor do they."
Craford says a criminal investigation would reveal more.
"I think we need to understand what the facts were, and if there was any undue influence from Skylab Architecture," he says. "It sure looks pretty fishy."