Sunday, March 16, 2014

Why I now personally support the Portland Public Water District... YES on Measure 26-156

My experiences as an active member of a Tabor neighborhood board, have heavily informed my personal position on Portland’s Public Water District proposal.  Many of you think those Tabor neighbors working on water issues are primarily concerned about the reservoirs.  The reservoirs are just the entry point by which citizens like me become engaged with the entire Bull Run drinking water system.  

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 on City Council.   You and I assume all hands are on deck to protect the region’s greatest legacy.  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 balances that keep bad decisions in check.  With each Commissioner becoming Lord of his own fiefdom, the individual Bureaus no longer receive thorough board oversight.  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, they avoid each other’s egos, and they find cover to hide from the bad votes they make while practicing politics.  A Commissioner may give a “yes” vote to a colleague’s outrageous pet-project, but he can claim he wasn’t The Commissioner in charge.

The Public Water District establishes one body where all members are clearly tasked with one job = managing our water and sewer utilities.  Each board member is clearly accountable to that task, and they can’t shirk the details of these complex utilities the way City Council does.

I’ve witnessed the failures of a Commissioner form of government.  I’ve watched advocates work for policy corrections within the normal remedies, and I’ve witnessed the normal remedies fail to be a fair match for systemic mismanagement.  Portland isn’t above corruption.  And I raise a red flag: our current form of city government does not provide adequate checks and balances to protect a public utility.  We are the last major city in the US to still use this style of Commissioner government.  This means we are the last major city to leave our public water in the hands of a single, distracted, non-technical, politically-motivated City Commissioner.  The proposed water board structure is not risky, it is widely used for all types of public utilities around the country, and it specifically mimics that structure successfully used in Eugene since 1911.  In fact, a dedicated water-board-of-directors is cited by the World Bank as a hallmark of strong, publicly-owned water utilities around the world.*1 (footnote)

Is this a new layer of government?
I was initially leery of the water district concept because I feared it would install an additional layer of government that might further complicate citizen oversight.  It does not.  This specific proposal does not create an additional layer of government; instead it substitutes the people sitting at the board-level.  The City Council steps aside, and a dedicated board steps in.  This new board sits within the same footprint of the current City structure.  The bureaus do not move.  These assets, the bureau employees, everything… it all stays within the City structure, only now, they’ll have active oversight from a dedicated, multi-member, single-mission board.

What our publicly-owned utilities sorely lack today is a place where the “buck stops here”  -- without a powerful mayor, or a powerful City Manager/CEO, or without a Council that will come together to serve as a responsible board of directors, we just don’t have it.  This is actually a problem for all the bureaus, and as a City we continue to bumble our way through with this unsound system and suffer the consequences.  But we can’t afford to keep messing around with our publicly owned utilities, and a dedicated board helps us patch this form of Commissioner government just enough to respect our responsibilities.  

The opposition
The environmental groups heading the opposition, have an interesting perspective.  The biggest among them, like Audubon, spent many years working for change in local government through the normal remedies.  Faced with a stodgy, uncreative body of grey-minded engineers at the sewer bureau, these groups committed to the hard work of making City waste-engineers more green.  Because they were successful, our City now employs innovative, green solutions to handle storm water, and we save money doing so.  Their hard-fought success informs their opinion that normal remedies work in Portland City government.  However, they were working against normal bureaucratic resistance, to bring new stuff to a cadre of people that tend to like sensible innovation, and they were ultimately asking that bureaucracy to change the way it spent money, not to cut the spending to which it was addicted. 

Similarly dedicated and qualified individuals spent those same decades attempting major cultural change in Water Bureau management practices.  These citizens repeatedly sounded the alarm over conflicting interests in the relationships between Water Bureau managers and the contractors that profit from the biggest water contracts.  They publicize Water Bureau practices that undercut the citizens they serve.  And they announce year after year, the list of build-projects City Council blindly marches into, simply because the corporations that write our long-term construction plans embed make-work in those plans while no one is watching.  These findings have been well publicized across all local media platforms through the years.  These citizens haven’t been working against normal government bureaucracy.  They’ve identified the vulnerabilities of our highly desired Bull Run system and they are telling you the normal remedies aren’t protecting your valuable water resources from manipulation.  All of our publicly owned utilities are vulnerable (as we now see).  We need to try something, and if that something doesn't work we need to try something else.

These environmental groups (like Audubon) are also fearful that their hard-fought programs will loose ground.  These programs are safe with the status-quo, and they don’t want new players interfering in their comfortable position.  I love our green programs.  I love our bike lanes and our bio-swales and I want them.  However, I am willing to question which of us funds them.  When we charge for a program on a water or sewer bill, we ask every man, woman, and child – no matter their income -- to pay the same share in these livability improvements.  Is this fair?  It sounds unacceptably inequitable and regressive to me.  When a struggling single mom (which my own mom was) puts her kid in the bathtub, I think she should pay for just water.  Where these programs get their funding makes a difference to our poorest citizens, and I don’t think our bird-counts, bio-swales, and bike lanes should be paid for on their backs.  These programs should find their rightful place in our City-budgets, and some of them will need to move.  We must have that discussion, it is an equity issue.  But it is an entirely separate discussion from the one this community is having regarding reform to the utility governance structure.  Claiming the new, elected water-board will mean the end to our green programs is nonsense, and it is meant to cause a panic that slows progressive discussion.

I have a flyer that is being handed out by opposition groups.  It’s chock full of assertions designed to incite fear and it is so full of inaccuracies, I thought for sure it was just a hack job done by a not-really-educated-volunteer.  It turns out it's from the Mayor backed PAC, and they have plenty of access to the measure and lawyers who can read it.  But they are counting on you to not have read it, or understand it, but to react to their fear mongering.

I’ll try to look past the insult launched by the name (“Stop the Bull Run Takeover”) and the attempt therein to erase the actual history of the last decade, wherein both of the chief petitioners and other reform supporters have in truth helped preserve Bull Run.  I’ll try to look past the blasphemous invocation of the Bull Run alarm, against a measure that has multiple provisions that strengthen protections for Bull Run.  I’ll also try to ignore the fact that none of the organizations listed on the flyer interviewed initiative crafters before signing to oppose… instead they sidestep the fact that this new structure is a widely accepted best practice, in favor of fearing change.  I’ll try to factually address the flyer’s swath of non-facts. 

The first paragraph asserts: “ …voters will vote on an initiative that would strip the Bureau of Environmental Services and the Water Bureau from the City of Portland and hand it over to a costly new government bureaucracy, with no guarantee of lower rates.”  This is false.  These two Bureaus remain City of Portland entities, they are not removed from our City structure.  The new board steps into the existing structure of the City to provide the multi-member, board level oversight the City Council fails at – the City Council moves over, the new board moves in.  And, no one should ever guarantee lower utility rates, ever.  Our Bond rating is as good as it is because as a community we have always shown a willingness to raise rates to meet our debt obligations.  What a new board promises this community is wiser spending, on the neglected maintenance and mission-critical projects that back-log while Bureaus spend money on non-critical, crony-promoted projects.

Paragraph two asserts: “This well-funded corporate takeover would seize our water supply, our sewer system, our system of environmental protections and more than $15 billion of city assets.  It would put them under the control of a board that by law could not include people with direct knowledge or experience with the system – and which might not even be able to be voted on by a significant part of the city.”  Wow.  No assets are being seized, all assets remain right where they are today, publicly owned by the City.  There is nothing that prevents qualified individuals, as a class, from running -- qualified individuals are welcome to run.  There are provisions that prevent specific individuals from running; these provisions establish waiting periods for individuals from groups or corporations receiving Bureau money.  These waiting periods are reasonable conflict-of-interest safe-guards sorely needed to protect our valuable publicly-owned utilities from the kind of revolving-door manipulation they currently suffer.*2  As to the  comment that a section of the city wouldn’t be allowed to vote – the chief petitioners have always intended the voting boundaries to include every citizen currently receiving Portland Water Bureau bills.  The ballot was written to insure that the body that designates the final boundaries can give a vote to every billed person.  The ballot was written by an experienced Oregon law crafter: Greg Chaimov, former Counsel for the Oregon Legislative Assembly.

Paragraph three asserts, roughly, that rates will be shifted to make residents pay for the bulk of basic system costs.  They insinuate that large-water-using companies in town are behind this ballot, just to do this very thing: to shift their costs to you-the-ratepayer.  I believe the last time this idea was floated – the one to shift costs onto the residents and away from the large industries – it was a Portland Water Bureau manager’s idea, not big-industry’s.  It was rejected, as I believe it would be if it came up again in Portland.  We like to make everyone pay for what they use because it encourages conservation. 

Paragraph four – “Harming our Environment” – makes illogical leaps that are almost too numerous to unravel.  First, of all the ways we have to get money from citizen to government, property taxes are one of the less regressive, and therefore the most equitable, and therefore the most Portlandy.  Some of the fantastic green-programs we have in Portland are being paid for on the backs of our poorest citizens.  Everyone has to buy water, no mater what.  When our poorest buy water, they should just be buying water.  Second, I don’t believe any board elected by Portlanders would roll back our green programming or neglect our rivers – it just wouldn’t happen because this is Portland and you and I elect this board.

And finally, paragraph six, the one that epitomizes the worst of the worst of public discourse.  When you cross so far into your own ideology that you fail to see the humanity of the human-beings with which you debate, you’ve gone too far.  That “longtime special interest lobbyist” is a civically engaged Portlander, and he and his “industrial water user clients” have been great allies to water watchdogs, especially in the fight to keep a chemical filtration plant out of Bull Run.  Large water users like the big brewing companies, employ a lot of Portlanders and when they speak elected officials listen.  Without their bold moves, you’d be drinking chemical soup from an unnecessary facility Water Bureau wanted to start building in 2009.  The large water users have consistently advocated for smarter spending, because they live and work right here too.  And as long as we’re on the subject, I challenge those that consider “lobbyist” to be an obvious moniker of evil.  I am a stay-at-home parent, artist, school and community volunteer, former project director for non-profits, and a small business owner.  I’m also a lobbyist and I have been since I was 10 years old going office to office in the Texas State Legislature seeking “yes” votes for the Equal Rights Amendment.  If you contact your elected officials with specific appeals on specific policy decisions, you too are a lobbyist.  And a valued, engaged citizen.


*1 – In a review of well-performing public water utilities from 2006, a working group of World Bank staff examined a cross section of strong utilities from various spots around the world and on the development spectrum.  In it, they explain that with a multi-member water board, the personal interests and political motivations of each single board member, compete with those personal/ political interests of every other board member to, in affect, cancel each other out.  Thus, balance is achieved as no one special interest can skew the utility’s direction.  Multi-member governance boards are cited as a hallmark of well-performing public water utilities.  “Characteristics of Well-Performing Public Water Utilities” May 2006

*2 – To hear chief petitioners answer a direct question about the conflict of interest provisions and why they are in this ballot measure, go watch minute 25:34 – 29:50, of this video from a public meeting where all parties (environmental opposition included) were invited to question the chief petitioners.  Linked here:  

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