By Nancy Tannler
Co-petitioners for the Portland Public Water District (PPWD) Floy Jones and Kent Craford held a meeting that detailed the reasons they have pushed to get their initiative on this May’s ballot.
The meeting was well attended by a variety of citizens, employees of the Portland Water Bureau (PWB), Bureau of Environmental Services (BES), The Audubon Society, Oregon Environmental Council and others. It gave attendants the opportunity to question Jones and Craford about the initiative and for them to explain how the governance restructure would work if voters choose to have a PPWD.
Floy Jones has a long history of tracking Portland’s Bull Run water system. She began as cofounders of Friends of the Reservoir (FOR) investigating and challenging the choices PWB was making about the Mt. Tabor and Washington Park reservoirs.
Although FOR has met with many roadblocks from the PWB, they have found enough public records to effectively question many City Council-approved controversial PWB projects and inhouse consultant relationships over the past twelve years.
Kent Craford is the former Director of Portland Water Users Coalition and has served on the Budget Advisory Committees for PWB and the Bureau of Environmental Services (BES). He is President of Citizens for Water Accountability, Trust and Reform (WATR), the group which organized the lawsuit against the City of Portland for illegal spending of water and sewer funds on non-mission-critical City Hall projects.
Both Jones and Craford are unpaid volunteers on the PPWD initiative.
The purpose of a PPWD is to take care of the water and sewer service, including stormwater management. This service would be managed by representatives of the people of the City of Portland who have no obligations or allegiances other than the operation, financing, protection and enhancement of the sewer and water systems. It would be established as an independent agency of the City of Portland.
The PPWD would consist of an elected governing board of seven directors by zone from here in the City. The candidates will be volunteers and they must reside in the zone. Their power is essentially a transfer of management at the top from the current PWB system. Everything else stays in place.
It has been noted that the current boundaries for these zones might need to be moved. There is an explicit conflict of interest section in the initiative to keep what Jones refers to as “cronyism” out of the election process.
The initiative includes a section that says the district many not regionalize or privatize water or sewer except in a catastrophic emergency. PPWD would adhere to the intergovernmental agreement entered into before July 1, 2013 that does not allow Bull Run drinking water to commingle with any other source of drinking water other than the Columbia South Shore Well Fields.
The check and balance system will consist of an annual comprehensive independent audit. Any orders, rules and regulations in the form of resolutions to carry out decisions granted to the district will be transmitted to the Auditor of the City. These records shall be public and copies will be accessible to the public.
PWB employees in attendance were concerned about their jobs saying that they thought they would have to reapply for the positions they now hold. Jones said, “Employees would stay in place and would not lose their benefits. The administrators would get a new boss.”
Jones said, “It is important to know that anything related to stormwater services will continue under the PPWD measure, but [there will be] restrictions against park land purchases.”
Spending ratepayer money on projects only tangentially related to water, sewer or stormwater service have become problematic, as watchdog groups have pointed out for years.
A green sheet was handed out at the meeting with a long list of environmental groups opposing the PPWD. When asked why so many oppose the idea of this initiative, Jones said, “We tried to speak with each of these groups but only Bark responded to our request.”
A formal statement included in the December 2013 edition “Two Views On PUD” can be accessed at southeastexaminer.com/2013/12/two-views-on-a-pud-for-portland. The statement was written by the Audubon society but signed by several environmental groups including Bark.
The Southeast Examiner spoke with Bark’s program director Russ Plaeger. He said, “Our primary concern is with the Mt. Hood National Forest. The current Portland Water Bureau gets the water to our taps while maintaining the sewer runoff and the Green Street Projects.” His agency believes that sewer runoff matters and, like other environmental groups, these programs might be unfunded with a PPWD.
Critics of PPWD claim that this is an effort for independent citizens to take over the Bull Run watershed. Regna Merritt, Physicians for Social Responsibility formerly the director of Oregon Wild said, “Anyone who thinks this about the PPWD initiative is either misinformed or inexperienced. It will be a cold day in hell before anyone would be elected to the PPWD board who would reverse the federal and city legislation to protect Bull Run.”
Jones said they (FOR, Craford, WATR) have been consistently active in all aspects of oversight of the PWB and Bull Run more than Bark and all the other opposing environmental groups combined. She said, “Decade after decade I’ve not seen a single one of those folks at any WB budget committee meeting or regional water manager meetings.”
When criticized about the financial backers of the PPWD initiative, i.e. Portland Bottling and Siltronic, some of the largest water users in Portland, Jones’ response was that she didn’t think they were in a position to judge these large water users who at least showed up at Council utility rate hearings and hearings on reservoir contracts and Bull Run treatment issues arguing like FOR, to protect the best water system in the country. She in turn questions the opposition backers including utility contractors and PGE who contribute ninety percent.
Jones and Craford believe that a new governance structure for Portland’s water and sewer, the PPWD, will put a halt to unnecessarily high utility bills and its impact on those least able to afford them and to stop the influence of the most powerful, global engineering firms on our Bull Run system.
The PPWD initiative is readable online at: www.waterreform.org/wordpress/wp-content/uploads/2013/09/PPWD-Ballot-Initiative-text-final-7-25-13.pdf