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Our Opinion: Water panel a start, but we want results

City of Portland leaders may be developing a better ear for listening — and acting upon — public concerns.

The first evidence of this improved hearing comes in the form of a promise fulfilled by Mayor Charlie Hales and Commissioner Nick Fish.

Back in April, Hales and Fish offered Portland residents a deal: If voters would defeat the public water district ballot measure in the May election, the two city leaders would consider water and sewer bureau reforms. The first step would be appointing a 12- to 15-member “blue ribbon commission.”

Last week, Fish and Hales announced appointments to the Utility Oversight Blue Ribbon Commission. It appears they have done a fine job of picking independent-minded thinkers who will provide more than a perfunctory review of the water and sewer bureaus.

While there will always be criticism of any appointed board, we think the 12 people selected for the volunteer commission have the professional and personal characteristics necessary to accomplish their difficult task.

The job is daunting because potential reform of the Portland Water Bureau and the Bureau of Environmental Services isn’t something to be taken lightly — and the commission has only until November to develop its recommendations.

Fortunately, the commission has ample background material to analyze. In addition to considering the critiques leveled by those who wanted to take over the water and sewer bureaus, the commission can look to reports previously issued by the Portland Business Alliance and the Portland City Club. Those groups made solid suggestions for changes that could foster greater accountability from the two bureaus.

We doubt any reforms will lead to actual decreases in water and sewer bills, because the city is staring down far too many legitimate, expensive projects to begin talking about rate reduction. Underground water storage tanks, an earthquake-resistant water pipe across the Willamette and the Superfund cleanup bill are still hanging over the city’s head.

For now, we commend Hales and Fish for following through on their promise to appoint an independent commission. True success, however, will come only if the commission is given wide latitude in arriving at recommendations, and if the city is truly prepared to implement suggested reforms.

Along the same lines, we were pleased to see Hales and Commissioner Steve Novick, who is in charge of transportation, back away from a confusing ballot measure they had proposed for the November election. The measure, which would have restricted how new money raised from a street fee or tax could be used, was muddying the public discussion about the larger issue of deferred road maintenance in Portland.

Hales and Novick made the correct decision when they delayed the proposed measure, but they are still confronted with the challenge of proving to city residents that an additional source of money is needed to make a dent in the backlog of neglected streets and absent sidewalks.

City leaders’ ears may be getting more fine-tuned, but the public ultimately will judge them on their actions to improve basic services — including water, sewer, streets and sidewalks.