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Coalition demands: Take water bureau away from Leonard

UPDATE • Mayor Adams says Leonard will keep bureau

A coalition of activists and commercial water users called Thursday morning for Portland Mayor Sam Adams to transfer the city's Water Bureau from Commissioner Randy Leonard.

The activists gathered outside City Hall also called on the city auditor's office to reopen a recent audit that found Leonard had authorized the bureau to spend millions in ratepayer funds on projects that had nothing to do with the delivery of water.

'We need a commissioner in charge of the bureau who is focused on its core mission and Leonard is not,' said Kent Craford, director of the Portland Water Users Coalition, which represents businesses that use large amounts of water.

Joining Craford was Regna Merritt, former director of the Oregon Natural Resources Council (now Oregon Wild), and Floy Jones, a member of Friends of the Reservoirs, a grassroots group fighting the bureau's plan to spend millions to replace the city's five open reservoirs.

The group also said they do not believe the City Council is fighting hard enough against federal Environmental Protection Agency regulations that could require a multimillion dollar treatment plant be built in the Bull Run Watershed. Water rates could increase 85 percent during the next five years in part to pay for the projects.

In response, Adams released a statement Thursday afternoon saying that he was not considering removing the bureau from Leonard. Adams said the council had approved all the projects identified in the audit and questioned by the group. Adams also said the council had fought hard against the EPA, including mounting an ultimately unsuccessful 2007 court challenge of the regulations.

'The real - and very serious - issue that our city's water bureau is grappling with is a significant potential rate increase in the coming years, due to unnecessary, strict and expensive federal regulations,' Adams said. 'Under Commissioner Randy Leonard's leadership, the city has explored multiple avenues for relief from these federal regulations, including challenging them in court. Commissioner Leonard and I have personally and directly lobbied for federal regulatory relief. I have encouraged critics of our efforts to provide detailed ideas on how to avoid these regulations, and I encourage them to continue to do so.'

Leonard made the same points in another statement released in response to the press conference.

Leonard said that he had worked closely with members of the coalition in the fight to block federal rules requiring the open reservoirs to be closed, but gave up the fight after the city lost the court decision.

'From that time until now they have urged me to defy the federal order to cover the reservoirs and make the feds try and have us comply,' Leonard said. 'I have refused to not comply with the federal mandate, arguing that the feds would take over the project and fine us millions of dollars in fines to boot.'