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. 

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