Voters slap down Portland water bureau

With all the other drama swirling around the election, let's not overlook a nice little outcome on one of the Portland ballot measures. Measure 26-219, allowing the city water bureau to spend ratepayers' money on projects other than the water system, was narrowly defeated.

The proponents of this measure tried to pass it off as "mere housekeeping," allowing the bureau to cut the grass under water storage towers. But it was more than that. It was a reaction to court orders forbidding the city from burning through water revenue on extraneous items, in violation of the city charter. And boy, have there ever been abuses in that department.

The lawsuit challenged a wide range of expenditures by the Water Bureau and the Bureau of Environmental Services between 1998 and the early-2000s, arguing that the spending had little to do with the utilities’ missions and violated the city’s charter.

It alleged illegal spending on several projects pursed by former Portland Commissioner Randy Leonard, who oversaw the utility bureaus and challenged the city’s spending on top environmental priorities, including green infrastructure and pollution cleanup.

The disputed expenses ranged from $618,000 the Water Bureau spent at Leonard's direction on the Portland Loo, an innovative public bathroom, to more than $50 million the Bureau of Environmental Services spent related to clean up of the Portland Harbor superfund site. 

It turns out, the majority of voters agree with the court order and think the charter restrictions are fine just the way they are now, thank you. Thus, the electorate dealt a well-deserved rebuke to a rogue agency that is far too loose with public money. It was wretched in that regard under Admiral Randy, but it's bad even to this day.

You can't blame the public for being sticklers on this. Water bills in this town are ridiculously high, especially when coupled with the obscene price we pay for sewer service. When tenants complain that rents are too high, and politicians and developer weasels preach about "affordable housing," that is a part of the equation that rarely, if ever, gets discussed.

I'm glad the voters did the right thing. It was a pleasant surprise.