Environmental groups say board could hurt city's cutting-edge strategies

Opposition is growing to a proposed independent board that would set Portland utility rates for water, sewer and stormwater management services.

The city's Charter Review Commission may ask Portland voters to approve an Independent Utility Commission in the November election. The idea is a response to persistent complaints from grassroots and business groups on how the City Council spends water, sewer and stormwater management monies - including the effect on rate increases.

The city auditor's office validated some of those complaints last year with an audit questioning some expenditures. Attorneys for the Water Accountability, Trust and Reform group, which includes some large water customers, are suing the city to force the council to repay ratepayers for some of that questionable spending. City debt experts say repayment costs could top $50 million if Portland loses the lawsuit in court.

During a Saturday hearing of the charter commission subcommittee considering the independent commission idea, four environmental and social justice organizations - the Audubon Society of Oregon, the Coalition for a Livable Future, the Urban Greenspaces Institute, and Willamette Riverkeeper - opposed the proposal.

In a letter from the organizations read during Saturday's hearing, the groups said the independent commission would be less responsive to the public than the City Council, and would hinder the city's ability to fund innovative stormwater management programs.

'Many of the cutting-edge green stormwater strategies for which Portland is now recognized nationally and internationally are in place today only because the City Council and bureau managers had the courage to move beyond traditional, engineered gray infrastructure approaches to managing stormwater,' according to the group's letter.

One controversial stormwater management project is the purchase of undeveloped land for preservation. When WATR announced its lawsuit, spokesman Kent Craford specifically mentioned the 2011 purchase of 146 undeveloped acres south of the River View Cemetery. The price was $11.25 million, with $6 million coming from the city Bureau of Environmental Service, which operates the sewer system and stormwater management programs.

Even some of those who have criticized the council's spending in the past have not yet endorsed the independent commission idea. Floy Jones, co-founder of the grassroots Friends of the Reservoirs watchdog organization, said her group had not yet decided whether to back the plan.

The only unqualified support for the idea voiced at the meeting came in the form of a letter read into the record from Dave Johnson, a former member of the Portland Utility Review Board, an appointed body that advises the council on utility-related issues. In his letter, Johnson said the council routinely ignores the utility board when the Water Bureau disagrees with its recommendations.

The subcommittee will have another meeting on the idea on Feb. 8, during which representatives from the four opposing organizations will be invited to testify. The full charter review commission will take up the idea on Feb. 6 and have a public hearing on it on Feb. 13.

The commission will decide whether to place the measure on the ballot at its last meeting, tentatively set for Feb. 27.

Concerns about spending

The current subcommittee proposal calls for the creation of a five-member Independent Utility Commission appointed by the city auditor and approved by the City Council. It would have the authority to oversee the development of the budgets and rates for the water bureau and BES.

The commission would submit budgets and rates to the council, which could revise them only if four of the five members agreed. The proposal would go into effect immediately if approved by the voters, and sunset on July 1, 2018, unless retained by the voters.

The 20-member Charter Review Commission is under increasing pressure to complete its work. It was created by Portland voters in 2007 to examine the city's charter and propose changes that go directly to the ballot without the council's approval.

Although the council appoints members of the commission, it does not have legal authority to disband the group. However, last December the council voted to end the terms of nine existing members on March 3.

Commissioner Amanda Fritz has said the council is not inclined to replace any departing members, meaning the quorum necessary to conduct business will not exist after that time. That is why Feb. 27 is likely to be the commission's final meeting.

This means the commission has little more than three weeks to sort through complex issues surrounding the independent utility commission idea and decide whether it can agree on a specific proposal for the November ballot.

Some charter commission members have indicated that they oppose the idea. Tricia Knoll, a former water bureau public information officer, said she was afraid an independent utility commission would end funding for downtown water fountains.

And JoAnn Hardesty announced a conflict of interest, saying she is president of the Coalition for a Livable Future, one of the four organizations that came out against the idea at the meeting.

Even if the charter commission cannot agree on a measure for the ballot at its Feb. 27 meeting, the idea could resurface. Commissioner Dan Saltzman has drafted an ordinance to create an independent commission that would not be in the city charter. It would only be able to propose preliminary budgets and rates to the council, and issue reports on bureau spending practices.

Another Charter Review Commission could take up the idea at a later date.

Fritz has said she will push for the appointment of a new review commission as soon as the council completes work on the Portland Plan, the strategic plan intended to govern policy and spending decisions until 2035. The council is expected to act on that proposal this fall.

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