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Ted Wheeler faces skepticism among some Mt. Tabor reservoir activists

In 2013, at the height of the battle over the city’s push to cap the Mt. Tabor reservoirs, opponents began linking Oregon Treasurer Ted Wheeler to the contractor they blamed for the plan, and decrying an obscure state initiative they considered a stealth privatization effort.

Now running for mayor after five years in statewide office, former Multnomah County Chair Wheeler has to introduce himself to these and other local voters all over again. He also finds himself having to explain that his support for private-sector partnerships had nothing to do with the still-bubbling reservoir fight.

The issue may not be a top priority for the majority of Portland voters, but it is a microcosm of the political reality Wheeler now finds himself in, needing to explain his handling of complex financial topics to Portlanders, said Jim Moore, a Pacific University political science professor who now heads the Tom McCall Center on Policy Innovation.

“He’s going to hate to have to answer these questions,” Moore said. “Because that just gets into specifics. It doesn't fit on a bumper sticker or even in an hour-and-a-half public forum.”

Wheeler, for his part, shows he’s happy to answer such questions, and indeed, goes on at length about public-private partnerships during a recent half-hour interview over coffee. His goal is to see that large public construction projects are handled properly, he says.

“There is a long history in this state and across the nation of monstrously screwed up public works projects,” he said, adding that his top example is Wapato, the unused jail built by Multnomah County for $56 million. “It's a project that never should have made it to the drawing board because there was no need.”

The aspect of Wheeler’s records that has some Portland reservoir activists concerned has to do with an obscure nonprofit launched by Oregon, California and Washington using foundation as well as state funding after consulting with experts, labor unions, officials and pension funds. Called the West Coast Infrastructure Exchange, it’s intended to promote public private partnerships that connect private investors to public projects such as water treatment plants. Investors could recoup their funds through methods like tolling on a road project.

Former Gov. John Kitzhaber’s administration launched the plan, intended to help unions find local partners for infrastructure investment, while helping local municipalities pool their projects to make them more appealing for investors. With an early focus on energy efficiency initiatives, the infractructure exchange became part of First Lady Cylvia Hayes’ agenda, and has been praised by the Clinton Global Initiative.

Seeking an early win, Kitzhaber's staff in 2014 tried to persuade Wheeler's former employer, Multnomah County, to involve the exchange in the project to build a new courthouse, but current County Chair Deborah Kafoury says the numbers didn't make sense. Nor did officials appreciate what they viewed as a Kitzhaber aide's threat that if they didn't participate, the courthouse would receive no state funding.

Wheeler says that's news to him. "I was not involved in that. That was the governor and the Multnomah County commissioners' deal."

Regardless, the exchange came to Portland reservoir activists attention in 2013 when they came across a report of the exchange prepared by CH2MHill, the large construction consulting firm hired to facilitate the nonprofit’s work early on. The same firm was involved in the city’s plan to decommission the Mt. Tabor reservoirs, and Portland activists took note—linking the exchange to their fight as well as the global battle over water privatization.

The West Coast Infrastructure Exchange never had any involvement in the Mt. Tabor reservoir issue, say officials including Wheeler himself. But some Portland activists consider the issues related, and consider public private partnerships to be a kind term for privatization. “Stop the WCX privatization plan,” blares the Save Portland Water website.

Wheeler’s involvement in exchange – besides Kitzhaber, he was the most prominent champion of the idea in Oregon -- also drew criticism on the now-defunct blog run by Jack Bogdanski, who called the involvement of financial sector “money boys” suspicious.

Wheeler, however, says the exchange is not about privatization. It's intended to provide expertise for overmatched local officials to negotiate on an equal footing with the financial sector and contractors when it comes to public infrastructure projects. He says his support stems from his involvement in the early stages of the Sellwood Bridge project.

“We were going to be going out and negotiating with the … the largest and most sophisticated infrastructure development companies in the world and as Multnomah County chair I realized there was nowhere i could go” for help, Wheeler said.

Though initially the infrastructure exchange was meant to be more aggressive in packaging and promoting public private partnerships, the focus has narrowed to just providing expertise, Wheeler said. That’s because people involved in the idea have realized local officials are even less sophisticated than was realized.

Floy Jones spearheaded the push for an independent Portland water district that went before Portland voters in May 2014. It was outvoted by a three-to-one margin, but Jones still has influence with many of the 30,000 voters who supported the idea. She says she’s predisposed to supporting Wheeler—except for his involvement in the exchange. She said she needs to hear more from him before she’ll vote for him.

Similarly, Johnny Dwork of the Portland water users, says he intends to grill Wheeler as well as his main opponent, Multnomah County Commissioner Jules Bailey, on the subject of public private partnerships.

“My entire group is going to make this a campaign issue” in the mayoral race, Dwork says of public-private partnerships, which he considers a kind word for privatization. “We have 2,000 people on our [email] list in Portland alone and we have been waiting...Portland's government has only just begun to hear from us.”

Bailey likely won’t be among those raising questions about the exchange, or public private partnerships— the latter a focus of his consulting business. He’s worked on similar concepts and, when he was in the legislature, also co-sponsored a 2013 bill to create a task force to promote the exchange.

But Bailey nevertheless stands to take advantage of Wheeler’s track record of involvement in projects like this. The more Wheeler talks about partnerships with corporations, the more it highlights his comfort in dealing with the financial sectors. And as political pollsters know well, Portland voters have a strong ant-corporate streak.

Bailey appears to be trying to turn that sentiment against Wheeler despite the fact that the two appear to have similar liberal ideologies, said John Horvick, vice president and political director of the polling firm DHM research, which is not working for either campaign.

“Observing the campaign it sure appears that Jules Bailey sees that as one of his openings against Ted Wheeler,” he added. Bailey “is exuding in his rhetoric more of that anti-corporate sentiment. You hear that in his language and in the way he describes himself and how he describes Ted Wheeler.”

Wheeler, for his part, said he’s relishes the chance to talk about the infrastructure exchange, adding “I understand that skepticism and it goes back to transparency and shared values.” And he tried to distinguish his history from Bailey's.

"I've got a record so repeatedly throughout this campaign I'll fall back on my record," Wheeler said, citing his involvement in the Sellwood Bridge project as well as the East County Courthouse and the county’s mental health crisis center. “I have a record of capital construction success.”