The people hoping to put Portland's water and sewer services in the hands of a new elected board have spurned a City Club of Portland invitation to assist in a study of the proposal.
In a letter sent this morning to City Club Executive Director Sam Adams, the folks floating the new Portland Public Water District say the study is loaded in favor of the status quo.
"Our decision to decline your invitation is based on the composition of your study committee with its over-representation of City Hall insiders with financial, professional or political interests in defending high water and sewer rates," wrote Kent Craford and Floy Jones.
Craford, who represents the city's industrial ratepayers, and water activist Jones are the chief organizers of a signature-gathering effort to put a measure before voters in May. They say the city has betrayed voter and ratepayer trust in its stewardship of the bureaus, using rate revenues for tangential or unrelated projects. The proposal would create a seven-member board to preside over the city's Water Bureau and Bureau of Environmental Services. But the measure has also raised questions over what could be unintended consequences of its language.
According to Jones and Craford, the study committee includes a "member whose nonprofit organization is funded by the city," "a prominent City Hall lobbyist," a "member who founded an organization that is a leading opponent of the PPWD initiative," and other people with interests aligned with the city.
UPDATE 11:47 am: Craford and Jones aren't only leery of the City Club's intentions. Back in July they turned down an invite from the Portland Utility Review Board—an independent body that reviews sewer and water rates—to come discuss their proposal. (Willamette Week also received a copy of this correspondence today.)
Catherine Howells, then chair of PURB, asked them to an August 15 meeting. "We are interested in hearing about your proposal," she wrote.
Craford's refusal arrived in her inbox the next day. "Political debate on electoral initiatives falls outside the scope of the PURB," he wrote. "Your decision as PURB rotating chair to allot time to a political issue simply confirms the PURB’s mission-drift in recent years away from objective utility oversight, and towards something more agenda-oriented. We do not wish to contribute to that and therefore respectfully decline."
When another PURB member, Charlie Van Rossen, wrote Craford to again extend an invitation ("Listening to your concern should be the PURB’s paramount duty."), he received a lengthy reply in return.
"Over the last few years we have witnessed individual PURB members input during the annual water/sewer budget cycle crossing the line from objective independent feedback towards plain political advocacy," read part of Craford's message.
UPDATE 1 pm: Craford, always good for a lively quote, tells the Mercury the PURB is a "City Hall-appointed circus of hacks chaired by a self-described missionary for the Portland Water Bureau."
"Why would we waste our time?" he says.
As for the City Club's response to the e-mail, President John Horvick released this statement:
For nearly 100 years and 900 completed studies, the City Club of Portland has been respected for its non-partisan, independent, fact-driven research of public policy issues: We continue that tradition as we examine Portland’s water and sewer rates, criteria and governance issues.
The City Club of Portland will continue to seek out the view of all sides of the Portland water and sewer rate and governance debate.
Anyway, read Craford and Jones' whole response to the City Club after the jump.
October 16, 2013
The Honorable Sam Adams
Portland City Club
901 SW Washington St.
Portland, OR 97205
Sent via email to: firstname.lastname@example.org
Dear Mr. Adams,
On behalf of the committee leading the Portland Public Water District ballot initiative, we are writing to formally decline City Club’s invitation to participate in their study of Portland's water and sewer rates and the proposed PPWD initiative.
Our decision to decline your invitation is based on the composition of your study committee with its over-representation of City Hall insiders with financial, professional or political interests in defending high water and sewer rates.
In particular, our brief review of your study committee participants reveals the following:
•A member whose nonprofit organization is funded by the City
•A member whose firm holds City contracts
•A prominent City Hall lobbyist
•A member whose regulatory agency employer is mandating controversial regulations which impose undue costs on Portland ratepayers
•A member who founded an organization that is a leading opponent of the PPWD initiative
•A member who has described her job as "to create missionaries for the Portland Water Bureau," and who would fall under the initiative's conflict-of-interest provisions in three different categories
•A member (the committee chair) whose employer has told us that if they work to oppose the initiative, they will do so through surrogate organizations, i.e. City Club
We have not reviewed the backgrounds of all study committee participants, but the affiliations
listed above are sufficient to validate our concern with the committee's objectivity. How can a group of City Hall insiders make an objective recommendation on a reform initiative intended to reduce the power of City Hall insiders? City Club's water/sewer study strikes us as a committee of foxes charged with reviewing henhouse security.
Further, given that you personally served on the City Council and consistently voted for the capital and operations spending, illegal non-mission-critical projects, and associated rate increases under review, we have concerns that, again, a conflict of interest extends to City Club staff and could influence the eventual marketing and representation of the study results.
Finally, regardless of your committee’s dubious composition, we believe its narrow charge misses the point. The question is not just what cost drivers pushed Portland water rates higher than those in Phoenix, Arizona, but what systemic City Hall management deficiencies led to those spiraling costs, and what governance changes are necessary to unwind them. Research focused mostly on the former question, especially by this group, is likely to yield little more than apologies for City Hall mismanagement.
In conclusion, while we appreciate the committee’s invitation to participate, even if late, we do not think City Club's approach to studying Portland’s water and sewer crisis is designed to yield an objective and legitimate analysis, and therefore decline to participate.
Kent Craford and Floy Jones