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City tries to block new water rate case query

Plaintiffs undaunted in push to unearth improper spending
by: Christopher Onstott, The city does not want to release internal documents on many projects funding with water and sewer funds, including the $1.5 million spent by the Water Bureau on the Rose Festival Association headquarters.

The city of Portland is pushing back hard against the lawsuit charging that water and sewer funds are being misspent.

On Monday, the city attorney's office filed a motion in Multnomah County Circuit Court to severely limit the information it must provide the other side on dozens of programs and projects questioned in the lawsuit.

The motion says the city charter authorizes the City Council to determine how water and sewer funds should be spent. It describes many, if not most, of the requests for information as a "fishing expedition" that would take an unreasonable amount of time and expense to accommodate.

The motion also includes a footnote that dismisses a previous letter of advice issued by the city attorney's office. It said the city charter requires that water and sewer funds should only be spent on programs directly related to water and sewer services.

The letter had been cited by attorneys for the plaintiffs suing the city as support for their cause. But in the footnote, the city now writes: "[t]he advice of the city's attorneys ... is entitled to no weight or deference from the court in interpreting the charter."

"This shows how political and disingenuous the city's approach to the water and sewer controversy has become," says John DiLorenzo, one of the attorneys who filed the lawsuit. "The city owes it to its ratepayers to admit that it has made many non-mission expenditures, to take responsibility, and to then move forward."

The motion will likely be discussed during a Friday status conference scheduled before Multnomah County Circuit Judge Stephen Bushong.

Grassroots watchdogs

The lawsuit was filed last year on behalf of water and sewer ratepayers who believe much of the money is being illegally spent on programs not directly related to the core missions of the water bureau and the Bureau of Environmental Services, which operates the sewer system.

DiLorenzo and other lawyers representing ratepayers have requested city documents justifying the spending for dozens of projects and programs. A number of them had been cited in a March 2011 audit criticizing some water and sewer spending. Others had been suggested by grassroots watchdogs, including Friends of the Reservoirs. Still others had been generated by media coverage of the lawsuit.

Early on, the city identified recent costs for each program and project that totaled about $127 million. More recently, the city also provided documents on three of them -- the former public campaign financing plan that was funded by all city agencies, the purchase of private lands by the BES for stormwater management and the state permit obtained by BES to discharge stormwater into protected waterways.

The city also promised to provide documents on water and sewer work done in connection with transit projects.

But in Monday's filing, city attorneys say it should not have to provide similar documents for the majority of programs and projects questioned by the suit. They include such highly publicized ones financed with water funds as the city's free-standing public toilets, renovation of the new Portland Rose Festival Association headquarters and the experimental Water House.

The city also does not want to provide documents on the city's preliminary work to clean up the Portland Harbor Superfund, which has been financed by sewer funds.

The city also says it should not have to release documents on travel by employees of both bureaus. According to the filing, the water bureau spent $400,000 on travel during the past three years, and BES spent $300,000 on travel during the past three years. Some of the travel was international.

DiLorenzo says he, the other lawyers and the plaintiffs in the suit are discussing how much to pursue each document request.