Challenges still loom as city water, sewer bureaus face changes

Regardless of whether the Portland Public Water District passes or fails in Tuesday’s election, controversies about the management of the water and sewer bureaus will not cease on election night.

Ballot Measure 26-156 aims to take control of the water and sewer bureaus away from the City Council and give it to a new agency — structured as a district — governed by an independently elected board of directors. The measure gives the council a short deadline to draw up district boundaries and transfer assets of the two bureaus to the district.

But Mayor Charlies Hales and City Commissioner Nick Fish have strongly hinted that the city will likely go to court seeking clarification on many provisions in the measure if it passes. Questions include issues first raised by Multnomah County Circuit Judge Leslie Roberts, who wrote the ballot title. Among other things, Roberts questioned whether the entire city is included in the district, whose boundaries are to approximate those of the Portland Public Schools board.

Other legal challenges could be filed by organizations that opposed the measure, including environmental organizations and public employee unions.

If the measure is defeated, Hales and Fish have already promised to quickly appoint a blue ribbon commission to consider other arrangements for managing the two bureaus. They include ideas offered both before and after the measure qualified for the ballot.

Some of the proposed measures would create a body appointed by the mayor or council with the authority to set the rates and budgets for the bureaus, with the council having the power to override them with a super-majority vote. Having the entire council manage the bureaus instead of a single commissioner has also been proposed.

Neighborhood activists are also expected to continue protesting council plans to disconnect the city’s five open reservoirs from the water system and replace them with underground storage tanks to comply with U.S. Environmental Protection Agency rules.

Watchdog testimony

Several third-party investigations begun during the campaign are still pending. The Oregon secretary of state’s office is reviewing two elections complaints by measure supporters filed against Hales’ office. One alleges that spokesman Dana Haynes broke elections laws by issuing a press release criticizing the measure. The other charges that staff member Josh Alpert broke elections law by speaking against the measure at a downtown law firm.

In addition, the city auditor’s office is reviewing cost overruns at the recently completed support staff building at the North Columbia Waste Water Treatment Plant. Costs increased from around $5 million to more than $12.5 million during the course of the project. The city’s lead architect on the project also went to work for the construction contractor as the costs were increasing.

Hales and Fish have asked the auditor’s office to review the cost increases. The Multnomah County district attorney’s office says it will decide whether to conduct its own investigation after the city audit has been completed.

And, the Citizens Utility Board will presents its first public testimony about the water and sewer budget on Thursday, May 22. Although the testimony was not available early in the week, the consumer watchdog organization could raise new issues about management of both bureaus.

Ballot are due at the Multnomah County Elections Office or official drop-off sites before 8 p.m. Tuesday, May 20.

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