Thursday, November 7, 2013

Are we really as in-charge as we think we are?

In the Hotseat with a Willamette Week reporter, Mayor Hales called the citizen initiative to place the water and sewer bureaus under a single-mission, elected board... "political terrorism" and a "corporate takeover."  That's strong language designed to incite our progressive population against a progressive movement.

It seems to me we are living a corporate takeover NOW, with our current system of managing Portland's most valuable asset and its most dependable income stream (water).  Corporations manipulate the mechanisms that control our government spending, so that our spending specifically targets their businesses, thus directing public money to increase their own wealth.  Water Bureau employees and City Council alike have looked the other way for the last 10 years as they've steadily marched us into massive build projects we don't need, because the corporations that write our long-term construction plans embed massive make-work in those plans while no one is watching.  The corporations that make money building big, don't make any money when we don't build big things.

Our Commissioner form of government fails a public utility, whose intrinsic value makes it a juicy target for corruption.  We must move beyond the Commissioner led utility, and provide our water and our ratepayers with better protections.  In all the years Portlanders have talked about the failures of the Commissioner style of government, this is the first year citizens/businesses have opened their pocketbooks to hire the legal team required to write a ballot measure aimed at a solution.  We need to try something, and if that something doesn't work we need to try something else, but we can't just sit here in a state of analysis paralysis.  It is irresponsible.

The level of debt we see today from our Water Bureau isn't normal for Portland.  You don't have to look back that far to see a time when Portlander's paid in full for their water system as they went, with today's projects being funded by today's population, leaving tomorrow's population free to afford the projects that come up, tomorrow.  The debt load we carry today isn't just normal operating procedure, it is the result of years and years of mismanagement, favoring massive new construction while neglecting normal, necessary maintenance.  Our water system is a rare and highly attractive asset that will always be a rich target for the unscrupulous, and we need more eyes watching it.

Sunday, October 27, 2013

Reservoir Update - Oct 2013

Everyone wants to know what is happening and, is it really over.  I will give you the facts as I know them. But you may have noticed by now, you are sometimes given a different version of the facts from the people employed downtown.  The discerning is yours to do.

Recognize the rhetoric.  City officials have wanted you to believe it was over for the last eleven years.  At every juncture, they’ve tried to convince you to give up and just let them build something already.

Remember where this all started:  it was 2002, and the Water Bureau inserted in their budget a line item to bury Mt. Tabor’s reservoirs.  Just like that, without public discussion, they were committing millions of dollars and were changing the face of a crown jewel without explanation.  There were no Federal mandates requiring them to do so, this was their idea.  It was on their to-do list thanks to a planning document written by one of the multi-national construction companies that make money on big-build projects like reservoir burials.  The City hosted community meetings to discuss what citizens might like to do with the park after the historic reservoirs were torn out.  At these meetings, citizens kept insisting that the community discuss why we were abandoning the reservoirs in the first place.  The City barreled ahead with its “what goes on top” agenda, which resulted in a design competition and plans (see more about here). But they couldn’t escape the continual mantra from the community: “Why are you doing this?”  The City was forced to hold a follow-up public process to discuss the question they couldn’t escape, and that second process is now referred to as the “Reservoir Panel” or the IRP (Independent Review Panel).  You can see an insider’s view of how that panel really functioned in an article written by Dave Mazza.  With the IRP, citizens launched into hundreds of hours of research, and were able to counter each claim made by the Water Bureau with facts to refute them.  This panel discussed everything from terrorist threats, to environmental contamination risks, to age and condition of structures.  As the science on each subject was examined, the case for abandoning the open reservoirs fell apart.  This 2004 Reservoir Panel, after three months of research and public debate, voted to maintain the open reservoirs.  The Water Bureau and their get-rich-cronies lost again, but they were evolving their strategy.

About this time, citizens start combing through Portland Water Bureau documents and practices and they recognize a striking pattern: despite the fact that they’ve inherited a well engineered water system with spare capacity for decades of new growth, PWB repeatedly neglects maintenance to instead embark on big-build projects recommended by the very contractors that profit from the planning and construction of big projects. They notice conflicting interests in the relationships between water bureau managers and the contractors that profit from the biggest contracts.  And they note practices that undercut the citizens they serve.  Among other things, citizens discover that PWB has been serving on an EPA Federal Advisory Panel tasked with crafting new drinking water regulation.  This regulation, when completed in 2006, heavily favors big construction options over lower-impact watershed protections as the best means to achieve clean water.   While serving on this panel, PWB representatives reportedly sign an “Agreement in Principle” committing Portland to build a filtration plant in the storied Bull Run watershed --  an unwarranted move given the unique isolation of our watershed, and a move unwanted by local citizens.  This new regulation also ends up including language about open reservoirs.  Specifically, cities would be required to cover them or treat the water leaving them with Crypto-specific technology; again favoring big construction over proven, low-impact risk mitigation measures.  This rule did not cite any science to justify these mandates for open reservoirs, because there isn’t any science to support the claim that lids can keep out microbes; all reservoirs need proper management to insure public health (note this month's coliform detects on the West Side, all from covered parts of the system that had not received enough routine maintenance attention).

This new regulation from EPA is known, in local shorthand, as LT2.  Sound familiar?  It is what this community has been talking about since 2006.  Between the years of 2006 and today, conscientious, hardworking citizens have taken countless hours away from their families and their other duties to pour their good minds into the conundrum that is LT2, and its expensive and unnecessary mandate.  These citizens have forged relationships with other water utilities in the country, they’ve consulted with legal experts in the field of EPA regulations, and they’ve embodied “grassroots” as their network of supporters has grown to include public health officials, equity advocates, environmental orgs, and big employers.  On an almost monthly basis they’ve uncovered loop holes, mapped out new strategies, and served up creative, legal approaches to LT2 compliance that would protect public health and scarce ratepayer dollars.  Your City Council has entertained only a fraction of the options they’ve been presented, and they’ve acted on less than a handful of those with limited effort and a confusing disinterest.  I’ve witnessed these efforts since 2008, and our public servants have not worked on this issue with the kind of quality or commitment you or I would.

The declaration issued this June by a majority of City Council (Amanda Fritz still supports alternative compliance options and thus did not sign the June declaration) was really just the City finally being honest about their stake in this effort.  They have not displayed the commitment we’ve seen in other municipalities, their efforts have been half-hearted, and at every step they drag their feet then do the minimum required.  So, don’t take their June announcement as actual news, but do recognize that the fight to keep the get-rich-cronies out of your drinking water has felt like an uphill battle, because, well,  we’ve sort of been going it alone.  A perplexing but powerful fact remains:  the City Council serves us, not at their own pleasure.  These reservoirs are ours.  They will either make it past this point in history, or they won’t.  We decide.

Portland should write a better letter to OHA.  The Portland Water Bureau has gone to the Oregon Health Authority (OHA) twice seeking to slow the fast paced LT2 construction timeline they set in motion in 2009.

The lastest request to OHA for permission to slow the construction timeline, was written by Steve Novick soon after he took office.  OHA’s internal emails during deliberation of Novick’s request are enlightening.   Reading them we sense there was pressure being applied by Hales office to come back quickly with a refusal, because that would help the Mayor neatly wrap up the discussion and move on with the spending. We see substantiated the claim that PWB did not put enough effort into their application (stakeholders have criticized the applications for being light weight, under argued, and missing valuable documentation).  As one OHA reviewer states:  “the City of Portland supplied very limited information supporting their request (at least I did not receive anything substantive).  The city of Rochester provided extensive documentation supporting their request.”  We also see an opening in an April 28, exchange between Director Bruce Goldberg and Dave Leland  -- in essence Goldberg suggests that other options (besides full scale reservoir closure) might also assure water safety. In his reply to Goldberg, Leland is quick to dismiss this suggestion, he cites the pressure from the Mayor’s budget process to issue a straightforward denial, and goes on to say: "The City is of course free to try to continue the discussion later with us if they choose, like anyone else."

Washington Park is underway.  The “what goes on top” discussion, heavily controlled and orchestrated by the City, is now on display on the West Side.  It sounds a lot like what our “what goes on top” discussion looked like years ago.  Reportedly, citizens are told they can’t ask why the PWB is covering the reservoirs, they are only allowed one comment or question, that question is time limited, and they may not speak for a follow-up question.

The Land Use process to disconnect Tabor starts in weeks.  An email from David Shaff indicates that in a few weeks the Portland Water Bureau will file the Land Use paperwork required for disconnection construction.  My guess is physical disconnection will be within the next 10 months -- as you can see, the PWB is already practicing at abandonment.  It is hard to believe barely more than one year has lapsed since the contractors finished $40 million in upgrades to these reservoirs, upgrades that were supposed to take us through the next 50 years.  Upgrades that included security cameras that should have captured the graffiti vandals (if only we had someone watching those cameras).

Efforts initiated by elected officials, meaning legislative and regulatory reform efforts, are as follows: Blumenauer is interested in working with Portland to achieve a timeline delay to save the reservoirs.  But Congressmen help those that help themselves and if City Council refuses to put any effort into this fight will Blumenauer?  Ask him.  Merkley has long been a supporter of our water system, but like Blumenauer, he acts in support of efforts by City Council and at a specific request from City Council.  Will he do anything else now that Hales has announced he is giving up on the reservoirs?  Ask him.  Obama called for regulatory reform within the EPA, and because of complaints from municipalities like New York, LT2 was included in the list of regulations EPA is examining for reasonability. LT2 is under review now and those cities (like Rochester) that manage to delay destruction long enough for the rule revision to finish just may find they have sensible mitigation options newly added to this otherwise nonsensical mandate.  But, because the Oregon Health Authority is not allowing Portland to slow her own construction timeline, we’re on course to miss these preservation possibilities.  OHA has the power to slow our timeline.  A handful of people have the power to stop this LT2 madness, and they are all paid by you and me.

There are new efforts initiated by citizens, aimed at protecting the reservoirs and Bull Run.  This summer I learned of three new efforts: the TRUST, the INJUNCTION, and the PUD (Public Utility District).  For evolving information about each of these efforts, please follow the links to my blog posts.  I’ll update those posts as information is made available.

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

The PUD proposal

There is an effort afoot to establish a new way of governing our repeatedly mismanaged water system, by setting up a Public Utility District.  The ballot measure establishing this PUD also establishes some other truly intriguing improvements to our city.  I am particularly fond of the first four major provisions listed below (these provisions summarized for me by a PUD Ballot Measure petitioner). 

The City Auditor’s office makes available online all of the details regarding this ballot measure, including the full text, the name the city has assigned to it for the Voter’s Pamphlet, and the legal challenges that were filed against the name the city wrote.  For that page click here. 

The people organizing this PUD will eventually have a website and when they send it to me I will link it here.  An interesting offer was made by one of the backers today, to City Council.  “Follow community will and we’ll call off the dogs,” essentially.  Read about that in WW.

Major Provisions of the PUD ballot measure:

(provided by petitioners)

* Enshrines protections for the Bull Run watershed in the City Charter (prohibitions on logging, entry)
* Prohibits privatization of water/sewer system
* Prohibits regionalizing the water system by turning over ownership to outside entities
* Prohibits co-mingling Portland’s pristine Bull Run tap water with water from the Willamette River or other inferior sources
* Creates a new Water/Sewer Special District within the City of Portland
* Removes utility management and rate-setting from City Hall politicians, and sets up an independent elected volunteer board
* Volunteer elected Board is comprised of seven members, with a term-limited chair.  Petitioners believe that volunteers elected based solely on their visions for Portland’s water and sewer system will do a better job than the politicians when it comes to managing these two utilities.
* Board to be elected by zones rather than at-large
* Requires an annual independent financial audit, including benchmarking against similarly-sized American cities
* Outlines strict conflict of interest provisions for contractors and board members (currently none exist)
* Consolidates two utilities – water and sewer – into one, eliminating redundancy and management top-heaviness

My Evolving Opinion
I for one am reluctant to install a new layer of government, especially given how ineffectual citizen oversight has been with the government body we have now.  However…The Commissioner form of government, like we have here in Portland, absolutely fails a public utility.  

You and I assume our greatest public asset, our incredible drinking water and the uniquely Green system that provides for it, is being looked after by all the good minds we’ve placed on our City Council.  You and I assume this to be especially true when a landmark issue like LT2 comes along, pushing massive changes to a system that doesn’t need them.  You and I assume all hands are on deck carefully wading through the options, to assure the region’s greatest legacy is protected.  We are wrong.  

What appears to be a sensible division of labor (each Commissioner takes charge of a few City Bureaus), in practice removes the checks and balances that prevent bad decisions. Functioning in separate silos, the Commissioners are rewarded for ignoring a colleague’s sloppy work and nonsensical decisions. By doing so, they build leverage, they build power, and along the way they trade votes and avoid stepping on each other’s toes.  But this system also provides them with cover; they may have traded a yes vote for an outrageous pet project and you’ll be stuck with the bill, but they can claim they weren’t the Commissioner in charge.

The PUD would establish one body where all of the members are clearly tasked with managing the Water Bureau.  Each board member is clearly accountable, they can’t look away and shirk blame afterwards the way City Council does.  Nick Fish is in the news a lot lately, he’s dissatisfied with the mess Randy Leonard left him with the strange assets Leonard acquired for the Water Bureau (the Water Demonstration House is just one of them).  But, every one of these projects pushed through by Leonard got at least three yes votes from Council, and Nick Fish was usually one of them.  He can’t claim he didn’t know about them, because citizens were there each time raising the red flag.  The silo system created by the Commissioner form of government allows too much cover for politicians to hide from the bad votes they make while practicing politics. The members of a new water board won't be able to point fingers at anyone else, they will be accountable for their work, and because of this I think we may get better work products.

The opposition to the PUD is an interesting community, and I’m trying to make my way through their concerns point by point to see if I share any of them.  So far, I’ve heard…

1. A fear that the new Water Board could be infiltrated by big polluters and corrupted to do their bidding. This is illogical.  The system we have now is clearly corruptible.  The new system is no more or no less prone to corruption in its existence.  Both systems provide officials we elect, so their weakness is equal. Neither system provides yet another separate body with oversight power (other than the independent audit that would be required for the new Water Board, and this is a significant perk over the existing system).   When the City Council mismanages the PWB today, we have no one to complain to except City Council… where is the outside oversight? Every large business in town has influence over City Council, that much we know already.  How is a new system any more susceptible to this kind of corruption?  The Harry Merlo’s of the world can influence the current system, they aren’t looking for a change. The new system defines and bans relationships with conflicting interests, these safeguards don’t exist in the current system, and we desperately need them.

2. An assertion that one of the backers of the PUD is the nation’s biggest polluter, mainly Precision Cast Parts.  As of the last time I checked the state run site for campaign tracking, Precision Cast Parts was not a donor to the PUD initiative.  

I wanted to understand better the statement that Precision Cast Parts is the “nations biggest polluter." I assumed it was a statement about the volume of pollution put out by the company, that they put out more pounds of pollution than any other company in the nation.  (That is not true.)  Unrelated to this PUD, the idea that we had a factory in town producing more toxins than a big coal company was worrisome.  Their ranking is not about volume.  Here is an Oregonian article. 

The History of the "What Goes On Top" discussion

You've heard the rhetoric, you're looking at the reservoirs, and now your wondering what happens to this park if we loose the good fight?

Some people have even started to panic, and they are pushing to jump into the discussion about what goes on top because they fear they'll get left out of it.  I assert, this is a very bad decision.  There are STILL viable options that the City absolutely will not bother to work on if they think they can get away with just moving forward with destruction.  And diverting community energy to the what goes on top process will absolutely shut down any other forward motion.

Remember, we've been here before, we had the "what goes on top" public process in 2002.  A design competition was held, beautiful drawings were made, cost estimates were higher than any available budget, and doesn't this sound like a loop?  We don't need to pay for another set of planners and another set of plans.

I will post 2002 DESIGN IMAGES HERE when I find them.  For now, you can reference a blog post on Jack's Blog from 2003.

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Citizen Initiatives for Water - 2013

This summer I learned of three new efforts initiated by citizens, aimed at protecting the reservoirs and Bull Run:   the TRUST, the INJUNCTION, and the PUD (Public Utility District).  There is enough information about the PUD to warrant its own post.  As I learn more about the Trust and the Injunction, or other initiatives, I'll post here.

the TRUST: was announced Oct 27; read WWeek article.  The group has a facebook page.  I note that Seth Woolley is associated with this new effort, which leaves me wondering if the Trust will have any real substance. From what I can gather, Seth Woolley is not a friend of the reservoirs.  He either simply doesn't believe they deliver clean water (in which case, he doesn't believe in science and we don't want him anywhere near our water system) or he just doesn't believe budgets matter (in which case, we don't want him near our water system)... in either case, he isn't an enthusiastic supporter of the reservoirs we already own and he doesn't seem to see them as an important part of our system. That sounds very much like the City's point of view. He is a newcomer to the Bull Run/LT2/Open Reservoir issue (welcome all comers!), and as he's yet to inquire for facts from the most educated citizens in the ring, I wonder where he gets his questions answered.

The WW article linked above mentions only the one element of the Trust, which provides for simple conflict of interest bans.  So does the PUD proposal (can you tell these provisions are long overdue?). Woolley is quoted saying the Trust will address transparency, accountability, and "public perception around water." That last little tid-bit, "public perception around water," sounds like a line from a guy who thinks citizens don't know how to think for themselves. That is a certain brand of politician I don't particularly care for; I'd watch out for this one.

I genuinely love the idea of setting our water supply in a Trust owned by the public, which I assume is what this Trust attempts to do (although, I still can't tell).  I hope this turns out to be an effort worth watching.

the INJUNCTION: no news yet.

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Notice - Development at 1806 SE 50th Ave

I received notice recently of a lot subdivision proposed in our neighborhood.  If you are interested in this issue, attend the public meeting or contact me.

One large lot with one house that will be torn down.  Five new lots will be created with frontage presumably facing SE Mill St., attached row houses most likely.  View existing lots on (type in property address) or view proposal as submitted on pages 1-3 of PDF.

Public Meeting: Thursday, Feb 28, 2013, from 6:30 - 7:15 pm.  Mt. Tabor Presbyterian Church at 55th and Belmont (5441 SE Belmont St.), in Room 05.  Enter the church through the main doors off the courtyard on Belmont, head towards the western end of the building and go downstairs.  Room 05 is in the west end of the building.  Wear your good socks because Room 05 is a "no shoe" room. 

Notice - Development at 5843 and 5901 SE Belmont

I received notice this week of a subdivision developing in our neighborhood boundaries.  If you are interested in this development, attend the public meeting (TBA).

Two large lots side by side, with one house existing on each lot, 2 existing houses total.  Proposal is to take the back portion of these two lots and subdivide that land into 3 new lots with a private street between the 2 existing houses leading to those new lots.  Three new lots will each have one new house, for 3 new houses total (plus garages).  View existing lots on (type in property address) or proposal as submitted to me on pages 4-6 of PDF.

Public Meeting: Thursday, Feb 28, 2013, from 7:15 - 8:30 pm. Mt. Tabor Presbyterian Church at 55th and Belmont (5441 SE Belmont St.), in Room 05. Enter the church through the main doors off the courtyard on Belmont, head towards the western end of the building and go downstairs. Room 05 is in the west end of the building. Wear your good socks because Room 05 is a "no shoe" room.