Posted by: bkivey | 7 April 2011

Breach of Trust

I’m fortunate to live near what must be one of the most problem-free cities in, if not the world, then certainly the country. I’d encourage everyone that’s able to move here. Well, if you’re an over-educated under-motivated  ‘creative’ you’re probably already here. I say that the city of Portland, OR, must have solved all the major problems that usually plague cities because the denizens of City Hall have taken to spending tax money on items only marginally related, if at all, to the original purpose for collecting them.

While there has always been public perception of tax revenue as a sort of ‘slush fund’ for political largesse, in nations that hew to the rule of law this tendency has been fairly well controlled. One might say that corruption and decadence are well-entrenched in societies in which politicians and bureaucrats don’t bat an eye at dipping in the public till if the money can be used to further ideological ambitions. Such has been the case at the Portland Water Bureau of late but the underlying problems can be found just about anywhere, and those entrusted with the stewardship of public resources are becoming more brazen in their disdain for the law.

Portland doesn’t have the highest water rates in the country, for that Sante Fe would be hard to beat, but it’s certainly mid-tier, and moving up rapidly. Rates were increased 16% last year, there’s a 14% hike on the table this year, and the total rate increase by 2015 is expected top 85% over 2009 rates. The increases are mostly to bring the water system into compliance with EPA regulations, but the mayor and City Council have taken to using the Water Bureau revenue as a funding mechanism for pet projects.

On 30 March the City Auditor released a report on the city’s spending of water and sewer tariffs. Lest anyone miss the point, City Auditor LaVonne Griffin-Valade helpfully titled the document “Spending Utility Ratepayer Money: Not always linked to services, decision process inconsistent”‘. Not much reading between the lines is necessary to understand that Ms. Griffin-Valade is of the opinion that the Mayor and City Council, have, if  not abandoned their moral compass, at least forgotten how to read it.

The report notes nine separate projects or bureaucracies whose funding by water and sewer tariffs is very likely in violation of state, county or city law, or bond covenants. Among those are a massive increases in funding for parks and planning programs, a program to build bioswales alongside bike lanes, dog park enforcement, community college scholarships, construction of a $700,000 demonstration house, and the creation of a whole new bureaucracy called the Office of Healthy Working Rivers. Many of the justifications for funding these programs from water and sewer tariffs are only remotely plausible. After noting that the law requires that tariffs only be spent on expenditures directly related to the services provided, the report goes on to say that the rationale for spending ratepayer money on ” . . . these programs may not be evident to the public and other stakeholders.” Do tell.

More galling than the gross misappropriation of tax money is the fact that the offending parties don’t even have the decency to appear contrite. The mayor and council only appear unhappy that their illegal activities were exposed. City Councilor Dan Saltzman decided that the solution to corruption in government was . . . more government. He called for the creation of a new commission to set water and sewer rates, saying “There needs to be another level of integrity that doesn’t exist right now.” Like, oh, I don’t know, following the law? Whatever Mr. Saltzman’s level of involvement, he is calling the mayor and councilors who have been vocal supporters of the aforementioned projects corrupt to their face.

And that points out the primary problem in this sort of malfeasance; while the laws may exist, there isn’t any enforcement mechanism short of a a citizen literally suing City Hall. All the laws in the world are useless without enforcement and the provision of penalties for violation. It appears that not only locally but in government at all levels the political guiding precept isn’t what’s best for the people they’re supposed to be serving, but what they can get away with. As Al Gore once famously tried to excuse his marginal behaviour by claiming the lack of controlling legal authority, so too do many politicians and bureaucrats seem to excuse their lack of integrity.

I’m well aware that people are human and that there are many examples outside of government of people behaving badly. The difference is that impropriety in the private sector carries with it the expectation of punishment. This societal norming is seemingly nearly absent in the public sector, and the prospects for a society where the public trust can be breached with little or no consequence are not good.




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