Attorneys for the city of Portland and citizens representing water and sewer users sparred in court Friday morning on how to determine if the City Council has misspent millions of utility rate dollars.

A lawsuit filed in Multnomah County Circuit Court in December by Citizens for Water Accountability, Trust and Reform Inc., along with former City Commissioner Lloyd E. Anderson, charges that the council has repeatedly spent rate money on projects not directly related to the core missions of the Water Bureau and Bureau of Environmental Quality, which operates the sewer system.

A Friday morning status check hearing before Multnomah County Circuit Judge Stephen Bushong took place hours after The Oregonian newspaper reported that the council is considering using sewer rate funds to support a private plant that will use commercial food wastes and grease to generate electricity.

'Oh my God, here's another one,' said Kent Craford, a consultant working for the WATR group, said after reading news story outside a courtroom.

According to the news story, the city may provide $900,000 a year for two years to the $55 million plant proposed by Columbia Biogas.

Seeking detailed spending records

Friday's hearing did not concern the substance of the lawsuit. Instead, it revolved around procedural questions related to the group's request for detailed information from the city on more than 50 spending categories at the two bureaus. Deputy City Attorney Terry Thatcher said much of the information was not needed to resolve the key question of whether the spending was properly authorized by the council.

'These were legislative decisions and the court does not need to flyspeck legislative decisions the council is authorized to make,' Thatcher said.

Plaintiffs' attorney John DiLorenzo Jr. responded that in some cases detailed information is needed to determine the 'primary purpose' of the spending. He cited a 2010 memo from the city attorney's office to the Portland auditor's office saying it has advised the council 'for decades' that such funds must be spent to fulfill the primary objectives of the bureaus.

'For example, we need to know if the primary purpose of a bioswale was for stormwater management or a bike path,' DeLorenzo said.

Thatcher told Bushong the city would file a motion for summary judgment arguing that the lawsuit be dismissed within two weeks. Thatcher also said the city would provide plaintiffs' lawyers with readily available spending information on some, if not all, of the categories.

Bushong set another status check hearing on the case for March 21. Topics will include whether the WATR attorneys need more information from the city to respond to the motion.

During the hearing, Thatcher estimated the potential liability to the city at about $50 million.

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