IT'S TEMPTING to feel a bit of pity for Commissioner Nick Fish, who can hardly catch a break—having to deal with messes that unfolded under the watch of his predecessors—after taking over the city's beleaguered water and sewer utility bureaus back in 2013.
Earlier this year, he was the lightning rod for a craven attempt by industrialists to take over the city's utility bureaus, tapping into anger over increasing rates. As commissioner in charge during the election, Fish had to step in for retired Commissioner Randy Leonard and answer for the small, symbolic sins of the Portland Water Bureau (money for a "water demonstration house" and fixes for the Rose Festival's headquarters, among others).
That wasn't pleasant—akin to stepping in dog crap someone left on the sidewalk and tracking it around until you finally got a chance to scrape it off your shoe.
But it still pales before the hazmat crisis that's just surged up around Fish's ankles—this time courtesy of his other predecessor, Commissioner Dan Saltzman, former boss of the Portland Bureau of Environmental Services (BES).
Early Wednesday, October 22, Fish had the honor of telling the world he was placing BES' longtime director, Dean Marriott, on paid administrative leave, while two outside attorneys examine how and why the cost of new offices for the city's Columbia Boulevard Wastewater Treatment Plant bloomed to three times their original budget.
That's a jaw-dropping announcement—the near-sacking of a bureau director—in the largely genteel world of Portland government. But Fish had no choice. A city audit that Fish requested alongside Mayor Charlie Hales, also released on Wednesday, turned up far too many "red flags" for anyone in charge to ignore—red flags that somehow weren't sufficiently raised years before when Saltzman was in charge of the bureau.
Some are baffling. Repeatedly, city council was presented with incomplete and shifting cost estimates that Fish says were described as "optimal"—surprising for a bureau that delivered the city's billion-dollar Big Pipe under budget and on time. Some seem vainglorious. The remote building—meant to be a functional home for engineers—wound up a needless showpiece with extravagant furnishings and architectural details. Some are ethically dubious. The project's contractor hired BES' design manager in the middle of the work—with BES letting that manager work for both entities for eight months. The most dramatic expansion in the project's costs came during its design phase.
"I'm disappointed. I'm alarmed," Fish says. "That's why I'm taking some tough actions."
Beyond the investigation, Fish has already changed how adjustments to construction come to council. His office also looked at 100 other BES projects done at the same time as the wastewater facility and found, to some relief, they only exceeded their planned budgets by less than two percent. Some of those changes came after KOIN first reported, and then explained in great detail, just how badly over budget the building had grown. (Willamette Week also followed KOIN's reporting this spring.)
But here's what's still going to be muddy: how a boondoggle like this could erupt under a commissioner's nose—Saltzman's—without anyone noticing that the stench was this bad. Was it because Saltzman's penchant for delegation turned into disengagement (at a time when he was complaining he had little to do after then-Mayor Sam Adams stripped the police bureau from him)? Was his office just another victim of BES' lack of transparency?
Saltzman's named just once in the audit—on the list of which officials would be receiving a copy. (His office declined to comment when I called.)
Fish confirmed the investigation will focus solely on the bureau. He's too busy shoveling his way clear to look back and cast blame at his colleagues, he says.
"I have to look forward."
And that's why you shouldn't pity Fish. If he cleans this up, he might find something nicer in his political future to look forward to.