Friday, October 5, 2012

Who Says Water Policy is Easy?

It appears that Oregon Water Policy is a high stress job - at least in and around Portland.  Take the Clackamas River Water District where officials learned this week that they will lose their liability and property insurance soon because of "ongoing instability and internal conflict."  They must deal with tough issues, for sure.

In Oregon, state agencies and special districts (what I assume are special purpose districts much akin to the "political subdivisions of government" we have here in Kansas) are provided liability insurance through an association called The Special Districts Association of Oregon.  This group provider says it has express responsibilities to protect all members from costs and liability likely to be generated by any rogue member - in this case the Clackamas River Water District Board which has been branded a "contentious and dysfunctional board".

This district has in the last 10 years had 6 managers, submitted to three special audits precipitated by claims of mismanagement and fielded a half-dozen ethics and workplace complaints.  Moreover, as of July 1, the board was involved in six lawsuits and an FBI inquiry.  An investigation by the local newspaper concluded that the district wastes an excessive amount of money on infighting, is legally a loose cannon on deck and has the highest legal bills (by far) of any Portland-area water district (mostly over internal personnel disputes).  But one of the final straws came in the September 13 board meeting when the manager and a board member got into a tug of war over an operations manual.  And this following a June board meeting that also erupted in flared tempers. 

With all the legal battles, the internal disputes, the ethics and labor disputes and the harassment claims, the district was finally notified that their insurance coverage is to be cancelled in 90 days.  This follows a January decision to up the district's deductible to $50,000 and eliminate their coverage for ethics and labor disputes.  Their rate paying customers have even entered the fray by demanding resignations from offending board members, which finally had an effect, when one board member did resign in July.  However, this left the remaining four members locked in a hopeless deadlock on most other issues - including the appointment of a tie-breaking replacement board member.  The situation is so bad that they're at impasse on declaring an impasse so the County Commissioners can step in and help.

The latest news finds that two more board members have indicated a willingness to resign - but only if all the board members resign - allowing the district to start anew with a fresh slate.  Of course, at least one of the remaining two has announced no resignation plans, so the stalemate goes on.

Things don't always go smoothly, and once again we learn that passion is great - until it obscures reason.  I hope this board can settle their differences and get back on the track of serving their rate payers.  Water is too important not to have at least an expectation that reasonable decision-making and planning can get accomplished by those you elect.

December 3, 2012 Update:  In October, two more board members resigned to help the struggling situation - leaving just two active board members.  On October 30, the two remaining board members appointed two more members, fired the attorney and placed the general manager on administrative leave.  However, these actions were challenged and a local judge ruled that the remaining two members did not constitute a quorum and therefore their appointments and administrative actions were illegal.   In November, the Clackamas County Commissioners appointed three new board members, who were elected as officers, and on November 20, they held their first "normal" board meeting since September.  Their first issue?  Get insurance. 

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