Commissioner Nick Fish agrees with his critics on this much: Portland's water and sewer bureaus could benefit from a fresh set of eyes.
Harried for the latter half of 2013 by a campaign alleging widespread mismanagement of the city's public utilities, Fish today announced a new arrangement he says is certain to win city council approval next week. Under the proposal, the Citizens' Utility Board of Oregon (CUB) will scrutinize the budgets—and pretty much whatever else that interests it—of the Portland Water Bureau and Bureau of Environmental Services for the next five years.
The 30-year-old CUB currently works as a ratepayer advocate with private energy companies in the state. The organization says it's saved ratepayers $5.3 billion since 1984 through its work with gas, electric and telecommunications companies.
"Here you have an organization that's built up a tremendous amount of goodwill and trust statewide," Fish tells the Mercury. "We think it's natural to invite them in to monitor our public utilities."
The move—which Fish says won't cost the city a dime and has the support of city council—might appear to be a reaction to wide-ranging criticisms from a campaign to form a "Portland Public Water District," a seven-person body that would take over the water bureau and BES. The campaign—along with a years-old lawsuit filed by some of the people behind it—say the city has misappropriated ratepayer money for a wide range of projects, such as the infamous Portland Water House.
But according to Fish, the arrangement was in the works well before the water campaign was announced. He got the idea from Commissioner Steve Novick.
"He was the first commissioner to have a meeting and conversation with (CUB Executive Director) Bob Jenks in which they began to talk about the possibility about CUB overseeing the public utilities," Fish says."Steve pitched that idea to me in the early spring."
an agreement setting up a meeting with CUB was his second directive to the bureaus after he took over in early June. City hall staffers say CUB has insisted on a high degree of independence, and will hire a new employee with expertise in public utilities specifically to carry out the analysis. According to Fish's press release:
CUB will conduct extensive community outreach to key stakeholders, including neighborhood groups, commercial and large industrial customers, civic groups, and environmental organizations to identify issues that are important to ratepayers. CUB will then develop recommendations concerning the bureaus’ budgets, capital planning, and longer-term policy questions.
To fund that work, CUB is counting on your interest. Informational pamphlets on the board will be enclosed in water and sewer bills "that give people the opportunity to learn about the CUB," Fish says. "If they decide to fund the CUB, it will be funded exclusively by private donations."
Not surprisingly, Fish's critics look askance at the announcement.
"The first step is always admitting you have a problem," says Kent Craford, a central force behind the Public Water District push. "It's encouraging to see Commissioner Fish come that far. Beyond that, I really don't know what he's trying to accomplish here."
Craford lauded some of CUB's work over the years, but said the organization's had input on water and sewer rates via participation in the Portland Utility Review Board, which makes recommendations to city council on rate increases.
"This isn't a fresh set of eyes," he said. "This is like rearranging the deck chairs."
In order to make the May ballot, Craford's campaign is working to gather almost 30,000 signatures. He declined to say how many organizers had collected, saying only: "We're close. We're gonna turn in early and it's gonna make the ballot."