A thought occurred to me as I considered Professor Bogdanski's posts on the Mayor apparently wanting to use sewer and water money to buy land from the Oregonian (here) and on the otherraids on the sewer and water charges for purposes without a clear connection to providing sewer and water service. The basic issue is whether the City should use -- in fact, whether it's legally allowed to use -- revenue from sewer and water charges to fund other projects such as bioswales and bicycle lanes.
A reasonable person could conclude that the City has raised storm sewer, sanitary sewer, and water charges above the actual cost to provide the service, in possible violation of the Oregon constitution. Yet the City's the monopoly supplier of water to its residents. But must it be?
While rummaging through the Oregon constitution, I came across Section 12 of Article XI, which reads as follows:
Section 12. People’s utility districts. Peoples’ [sic] Utility Districts may be created of territory, contiguous or otherwise, within one or more counties, and may consist of an incorporated municipality, or municipalities, with or without unincorporated territory, for the purpose of supplying water for domestic and municipal purposes; for the development of water power and/or electric energy; and for the distribution, disposal and sale of water, water power and electric energy. Such districts shall be managed by boards of directors, consisting of five members, who shall be residents of such districts. Such districts shall have power:
(a) To call and hold elections within their respective districts.
(b) To levy taxes upon the taxable property of such districts.
(c) To issue, sell and assume evidences of indebtedness.
(d) To enter into contracts.
(e) To exercise the power of eminent domain.
(f) To acquire and hold real and other property necessary or incident to the business of such districts.
(g) To acquire, develop, and/or otherwise provide for a supply of water, water power and electric energy.
Such districts may sell, distribute and/or otherwise dispose of water, water power and electric energy within or without the territory of such districts.
The legislative assembly shall and the people may provide any legislation, that may be necessary, in addition to existing laws, to carry out the provisions of this section.
Suppose a group of irritated ratepayers petitioned to form a public utility district for the purpose of providing water in the City of Portland. The PUD would be governed by an elected board of directors, as provided by the constitution. It could acquire the water system from the City and provide water to its members. It would have to acquire its own billing system (something it could likely do much more cheaply than the City did). Being a new entity, it could choose whether or not to participate in PERS. Because it would be limited to providing water service, it could not divert water revenues for other pet projects. Forget about the electric company: if the City Council is going to tap into the sewer and water revenues to bail out the Oregonian's owners, let's think about a people's utility district for our water service.
Professor Bogdanski links to this delightful item from KGW, stating that the City of Portland is considering buying the largest and best undeveloped piece of industrial property in the city to use as an assembly area in case we should be hit by a natural disaster. The property, formerly an iconic office and warehouse for U.S. Steel located at the corner of NW Yeon and Nicolai at the gateway to the Northwest Industrial Sanctuary, is now owned by the Oregonian and has been vacant for years. (In 1995 the Oregonian lavishly praised the historic qualities of the U.S. Steel buildings and lauded Costco for its plan to remodel them into a retail store. After the City Council rejected Costco's application, the Oregonian bought the property and tore down the buildings that its editors wanted to preserve.) KGW reports that Mayor Adams proposes to spend $10 million to buy this property so that, if we should have a major earthquake and still be able to travel by freeway, emergency responders will have a place to assemble.
If we are hit by a major earthquake, we will have a lot of vacant land available to use as points of assembly. We won't, however, know where emergency workers and volunteers should assemble until we know which roads are still open. The Mayor, nevertheless, suggests that we should spend $10 million to bail out Newhouse and the Oregonian, for property that the City expects to use for a few weeks every 50 years.
Here's a better idea. First, obtain the Oregonian's commitment to sell the property for $10 million (or whatever its reasonable value is right now) to any industrial user that the City might locate within the next three years. That doesn't cost anything. Second, engage three teams of industrial designers and engineers to draw plans for factories on the site that comply with City code, without variances, and get the plans approved by the Planning pooh-bahs. Third, announce to the world that Portland has a flat 11-acre industrial site with all services, ready to build, and that anyone who builds to one of the three plans can get building permits immediately on paying the application fee, because the plans are pre-approved. That is, the project is shovel-ready, and anyone who wants to build a factory and employ some Portlanders can break ground the day after closing, because the City is ready to issue every discretionary permit that is required.
The City of Portland, late to the game, has settled with the family of the late James Chasse, a mentally ill citizen of Portland who three years ago died of injuries caused by police officers who kicked him and stomped on him while he lay on the ground in the Pearl District. After they broke his ribs, the police officers refused to allow an ambulance company to transport him to a hospital, and he died in police custody.
I don't intend to revisit the circumstances of Mr. Chasse's death, though I'm surprised at the number of people who apparently believe (read the comments on OregonLive) that being killed is a proper police response to someone suspected of urinating in public, but rather to analyze how the City erred after its employees killed Mr. Chasse.
Let's not mince words. City employees killed Mr. Chasse. Mr. Chasse was not armed. Mr. Chasse was not committing a felony. Mr. Chasse was not fleeing a crime scene. Mr. Chasse was not fleeing from arrest. Mr. Chasse was not driving a car toward a police officer. He was simply a mentally ill person who had the misfortune to live in Portland.
When the Multnomah County district attorney determined not to file charges against the police officers involved in Mr. Chasse's death, the city made its first mistake in not pressing to release the entire investigation to that date, and in not engaging an independent agency to investigate Mr. Chasse's death. The usual excuse that a government makes in this situation is to say, "Because this matter might go to litigation, we can't comment on it."
In some legal circumstances, I can agree with this principle, but in this one, no. A government that kills its citizens has a duty to explain its reasons. Tom Potter (who was mayor when Mr. Chasse was killed in 2006) and Sam Adams (mayor since January 2009) both failed this test. For two reasons, the city should not have hid behind the excuse of litigation from Mr. Chasse's survivors to refuse to disclose everything it knew about the circumstances of Mr. Chasse's death. The first and lesser reason is that the Chasse family's lawyers would be able to obtain the same information, or most of it, through a lawsuit anyway. The second and far more important reason is that a government is not a private litigant; it has, or should have, no private interests of its own but should at all times be led by people who are willing to explain what the government's agents have done and either justify to the public how they have used the power with which their citizens have entrusted them, or acknowledge that their agents have misused that power and then fairly compensate the victims.
Some of the comments to other reports and blog postings about the Chasse case and settlement state, in essence, "In this sad case there are no winners, only losers." That's true, up to a point. The police officers who beat Mr. Chasse lost their credibility. Mayor Adams, Commissioner Saltzman, and Chief (now ex-chief) Sizer lost their respect. Mr. Chasse lost his life. He was the only one whose choice was made for him.
In a later post I'll give my views on how the City should have responded three years ago, and further explain my contention that Mayor Potter, Mayor Adams, Commissioner Saltzman, and Chief Sizer gravely botched the aftermath of Mr. Chasse's death.
Why is it that if you're a lowly mortgage broker who originates ten loans with fraudulent documentation, you're a felon and go to Club Fed for five years for the protection of the public, but if you're the chief executive officer of the investment banking firm that made billions from purchasing those loans, slicing them into security sushi, and reselling them to innocent investors, you not only keep your job but your stock options also, and get your company a government bailout, also for the protection of the public?