sunlight is the best disinfectant (on Measure 26-156)

The Well-Read red has been reading the voter's pamphlet for Portland, and has done some additional reading about
Measure 26-156, which (in the words of the voters's pamphlet) "Amends Charter: Creates Water and Sewer District with Elected Board."

The arguments in favor of this measure speak to some real and reasonable concerns about how the City's water and sewer services have been administered of late. But the arguments in opposition, and related supporting material, suggest that this measure is likely to make those problems worse, not better, and that citizens should pursue alternate solutions, some of which are already in the works.

As a post on sustainable business oregon notes,

Backed by a handful of large industrial water users in Portland and opposed by a large coalition of community, labor, and environmental organizations, the ballot measure has already received a thumbs-down from The Oregonian, The Portland Tribune ,The Willamette Week , and The Portland Mercury .

Some of the backers of Measure 26-156 showed their cards last year, revealing their interest in doing away with natural infrastructure to address stormwater management. In a lawsuit against the city, they argued that programs like green streets and watershed protection are unauthorized expenditures.

(They made a similar argument about programs for low-income ratepayers to help preserve their water service during tough times.)

Campaigners for the ballot measure focus on costs, and herein lie some ironies. First, it's worth noting … that the measure itself does nothing to lower water and sewer rates. In fact, both the independent City Club of Portland and the Portland Business Alliance studied Measure 26-156 and concluded that, if approved, it would likely end up raising rates.

Additionally, the natural infrastructure projects that ballot measure supporters are quick to dismiss actually save ratepayers money by helping avert the need to expand hard infrastructure and extend the viable lifespan of current systems. These projects also provide a rich array of co-benefits, [including] reduced flood risks, and improved water quality and habitat. . . .

If there is a genuine cost issue to be had here it's the additional cost of creating a new agency separate from city government that will no longer be able to share administrative services with other city bureaus. This may actually increase costs to ratepayers. In addition, the chief petitioner for the ballot measure would like to see property owners, instead of water users, pay the lion's share of the costs to clean up the Portland Harbor Superfund site, contaminated by industrial pollution. Portland [residents] should not have to pay higher property taxes to subsidize polluters.

Paying superfund costs based on property tax values rather than on amount of water used would lower costs for Siltronic, the city's largest water user and the measure's major backer; but would raise rates for most of us.

There is also likely to be a cost to litigating the measure. As the Audubon Society notes,

A Multnomah County judge who reviewed the ballot title language ruled that the backers of the initiative failed to include East Portland (representing 25 percent of Portland’s population) in the new voting districts that would elect the Water District Commissioners. The judge was unable to propose a remedy for this omission, meaning that East Portland could be permanently excluded from the new water district. She also found that the new district would be removed from oversight by the city auditor, one of our most important accountability mechanisms.... In addition to the judge’s ruling, serious concerns have been raised about the potential costs of this initiative. Specifically, proponents of the initiative have not provided any information about the costs associated with creating a new governmental entity and also have failed to assess potential impacts of the initiative on the two bureaus' currently outstanding bond ratings. As it stands, this initiative excludes a significant portion of Portland’s population, removes critical accountability mechanisms, and could add significant unnecessary costs to the operation of these bureaus.

It's ironic that one of the arguments proposed in support of the measure concerns the city's failure to get a waiver against covering the Mount Tabor reservoir. Sunlight really is the best disinfectant, but this measure would block out the light.

As the Audobon society notes,
Residents of Portland may not always agree with the decisions made by the Portland City Council, but the public is able to track and weigh in on important decisions through regular public hearings, strong disclosure rules, an extensive budget process, and ultimately through elections. Recent budget hearings attended by hundreds of people stand as a case in point. Special district boards by comparison are typically much more obscure, remote and faceless. Few people track the activities of special district boards, they receive virtually no media coverage, they meet relatively infrequently, and they are typically not included in media endorsement pages or in watchdog group scorecards. Creating a special district to run our public utilities is a recipe for takeover by corporate interests as well as less transparency and public oversight than exists today.

Measure 26-156 advocates say having an independent supervising Board will bring light and democracy to the water and environmental services bureau. That might be true in a different and better world in which the separate Board got their positions in real contested elections in a country where the people had the time, money, experience, and skills to meaningfully participate, and in which the mainstream media was vigorous and independent.

But we do not live in that world. And setting up that independent Board in this world (in which money buys elections, most media outlets represent elites, and the Board's operations would be hidden in the cacophony) would just diminish popular voice in setting water and environmental policy.  The real result of establishing the so-called "independent" Board would be giving control to the big polluters and users to gut environmental policy and lower water rates to big users.

That leaves open the question of how to actually advance small "d" democracy in this society. That's obviously a big question, but we can identify some of the the prerequisites for moving towards authentic democracy:
- fair elections and eligibility requirements.
- more security and higher wages and less time in work so people have time for civic engagement.
- democratic processes and experiences in daily life: in families, in civil society, in schools, and especially at work.
- more alternative actually independent media:  needs more KBOO!

For more information on the measure, see the links above, especially those from the Audubon Society.


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