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Jury's out on whether new PUB would work


Portland needs a better watchdog for its oft-maligned water and sewer bureaus, and the question is whether a proposed new oversight board will have the teeth necessary to adequately perform that role.

At this stage, no one can say for sure whether the proposed Portland Utility Board will be given the appropriate tools and respect it needs to protect ratepayers’ interests. Its effectiveness can be measured only after the public has a chance to observe whether its recommendations carry weight with the the commissioner in charge of the bureaus and the rest of the City Council.

The new Portland Utility Board — destined to be called the PUB — is being suggested by a blue-ribbon panel appointed by Commissioner Nick Fish, who currently is in charge of both bureaus. The commission’s charge was to examine how the bureaus are governed and come forward with reform ideas. The two bureaus have been the subject of much controversy over the past few years, due to spending on activities that weren’t central to their mission of providing water and sewer services.

Council members have used the bureaus’ revenues as a source of cash for pet projects, such as the Portland Loos, the Portland Water House, and the new headquarters for the Rose Festival. These projects had little effect on already-rising water and sewer rates, but they stood as symbols of misguided priorities. Those issues and other controversies sparked a failed ballot measure campaign in the spring to wrest control of the Water Bureau and Bureau of Environmental Services from the council.

Voters overwhelmingly rejected that change, but Fish and Portland Mayor Charlie Hales followed through on their pledge to convene the commission. That group, led by former federal prosecutor Dwight Holton, finished its work last week, issuing several recommendations.

Formation of the PUB is the main suggestion. It would replace the existing Portland Utility Review Board and water and sewer citizen budget committees. The commission recommends giving the PUB more clout by having it meet year-round and by hiring two staff members dedicated to its work. The two employees would be stationed in the City Budget Office that reports to the entire council.

Further, the PUB would be involved in the budgeting process at the beginning, middle and end — helping to determine water and sewer budget priorities.

The reforms proposed by the commission don’t go as far as some critics would like. They question whether the PUB would be any more effective in overseeing spending decisions than the current array of committees. The pet projects that have ignited so much controversy weren’t part of the formal budgeting process, anyway — which means more stringent budget review won’t in itself solve the problems of the past.

These are legitimate questions, but it’s premature to say the reforms won’t work or that the PUB will be just another “say yes” city committee. It all will depend on upcoming actions of the City Council: Who will Fish nominate for the PUB? How seriously will council members treat the PUB’s recommendations? How independent will the two staff members assigned to the PUB be from the rest of the bureaus’ management?

At the very least, the PUB should be a louder voice for fiscal responsibility. If Fish nominates truly independent-minded people for the PUB, they will be able to object early and often when the two bureaus veer away from their missions. The formation of the PUB, assuming the council adopts the commission’s recommendations, will follow an earlier decision to have the Citizens Utility Board of Oregon also provide oversight of the water and sewer bureaus.

The combination of a PUB and CUB — despite their clever acronyms — could be effective in preventing missteps that have occurred in recent years. Council members themselves will determine just how effective. Either they give this new board the authority and resources needed to defend ratepayers, or they can expect water-related controversies to arise again in the future.