Friday, January 29, 2010

Not Your PURB Anymore

After being criticized for a recommendation that seems to ignore years of substantive public input (representing countless hours contributed by thousands of citizens), PURB*1 has decided to give the public 2 hours. In March, forty Portlanders can have 3 minutes each to say their peace regarding a recommendation formed without citizen input,*2 that urges massively expensive changes to the city’s drinking water system. First, Portlanders will listen to a panel of presenters which, remarkably, doesn’t include a single citizen-based stakeholder group.*3 Then, if the panel doesn’t drone on too long, citizens can have a few sentences, and that’s it. Seemingly, PURB will consider their job done and the pesky public finally dispensed with on this controversial topic. (UPDATE: the March PURB public hearing on the reservoirs is now set for Wednesday, March 3rd from 5:30 - 8:00 pm in Room C on the second floor of the Portland Building; across the street from City Hall.)

The current PURB water subcommittee recommendations, for Portland’s reservoirs and for Bull Run, are a complete reversal of the last PURB’s recommendations regarding the community’s water system (issued August 2004), and they seek aggressive changes to that water system. Not only is the PURB now advocating for reservoir closure, but members employ language indicating PURB may aggressively support a new treatment plant at Bull Run. When I asked PURB members what new data they have seen, that the last PURB had not seen, that would in turn cause them to reverse major water system recommendations, one PURB member (Marks) replied that the PURB has new people that simply take a different position on the same data. New people, but no new data. (One might note here that all of the newest PURB members seem to have been appointed through the office of the Commissioner in charge of the Water Bureau.)

Another PURB member (Johnson) confirmed that the 2009 PURB, “did not do any comparisons to prior PURB positions.” New people, no new data, and a conscious effort to ignore the historical knowledge offered by a previous PURB whose members were both 1) well versed on local water topics and 2) actually present when most of the “public process” surrounding the reservoirs took place in this community (Scott Fernandez and Frank Ray as examples).

The current PURB water subcommittee recommendation on open reservoirs presents two supporting documents, both written by the Bureau for which this PURB is supposed to be providing independent oversight. PURB is presenting to Portlanders the case Portland Water Bureau presented, with seemingly very little examination of the range of alternatives. When Mayor Adams asked PURB subcommittee members (Jan 12 Council Work Session) if they’d consulted the well-educated stakeholder groups (like Friends of the Reservoirs) before making their subcommittee recommendations, Dave Johnson asserted that while he’d attempted to contact those stakeholders, he hadn’t succeeded. This PURB water subcommittee did not interview Friends of the Reservoirs representatives – by far some of the most water-system versed people in the city -- before issuing their recommendation. And, when Friends of the Reservoirs (FoR) attempted to share its organization’s research with PURB members during recent PURB meetings, FoR representative F. Jones was reportedly rebuffed with comments that suggested her presence was a nuisance (one PURB member wondered aloud why Jones was there to badger them, another pressed that they’d heard it all before).

The prior PURB recommendations about Portland’s water system issued in August 2004 were an outgrowth of a period of intense public discussion, and they were influenced by the exhaustive work of other groups like the Reservoir Independent Review Panel. In fact, one of the previous PURB members, Frank Ray, sat on both the PURB and the Independent Review Panel, which means he provided the PURB first hand participation in an intense public process that took place 3 hours every week for 3 months. The previous PURB also had Scott Fernandez, a microbiologist with water quality expertise and an unusually sophisticated understanding of Portland’s water system. Fernandez no longer serves on the PURB, after officials inexplicably denied his reappointment in 2008. None of the previous PURB members that were active in the public part of the discussion surrounding our water system are associated with the 2009 PURB.

If the 2009 PURB is devoid of participants active in the era of public process for these issues, and if the 2009 PURB rebuffs historical knowledge available through community groups long-active in this decade long discussion, then isn’t the 2009 PURB a bit like a judge and jury that arrives after the trial is finished… they’ve missed the airing of the arguments, the points and counter points to both sides of the case, they’ve arrived in time for one side’s closing, and that’s it. This begs the question: can the current PURB offer advice the citizens will find legitimate?

End notes:
*1 – PURB = Portland Utility Review Board

*2 – PURB members Wickham and Johnson reported that, “they interviewed several citizens, stakeholders, and Portland’s federal delegation to gather information on the LT2 issue.” Wickham and Johnson have not publicly disclosed interviewee names, or the dates interviews were conducted. At the June 2009 PURB meeting they were pressed to do so. The June 2009 meeting minutes report that Wickham “said they cannot list individuals because several asked that they not be identified.” I have also directly asked for this disclosure, and not received it. June 2009 PURB meeting minutes available online:

*3 -
PURB Public Hearing on Open Reservoirs

Proposal for meeting format
January 20, 2010

Public Hearing Proposal
The public hearing must comply with Oregon public meeting law requirements and will be recorded.

Propose a two and one-half hour Public Hearing to be scheduled in the evening between March 2nd and March 15th regarding the LT2 open reservoir rule and Portland’s in-town open reservoirs. The opportunity for public testimony was requested of the PURB through the Portland Water Bureau subcommittee on January 12th by Mayor Adams and Commissioner Fitch.
The Hearing Officer should be a professional contracted by the City of Portland to conduct the hearing and provide a summation of the testimony and findings of fact.

A 30 minute overview will be provided prior to receipt of public testimony. The overview should be presented by:

David Shaff, Water Bureau (invited)
Gary Oxman, Health Officer Multnomah County Health Department (invited)
David Leland, Oregon State Drinking Water Program (invited)
Senator Merkley Office, (invited)

Testimony will be taken by those who sign in for this purpose in the order of sign in. Testimony will be limited to three minutes per person. The duration of the public testimony will be limited to two hours. Written testimony may be submitted in lieu of verbal testimony. Anyone testifying must also provide a written copy of their testimony. A summary, prepared by the Hearing Officer will be published on the PURB website consistently with the public hearing requirements of the State of Oregon.