Writings and observations

Don’t drink the water

jorgensen

It was announced last week that Portland Public Schools (PPS) Superintendent Carole Smith plans to retire after the end of the next school year. This came as no surprise to me. In fact, I called it weeks ago.

Smith’s golden administrative parachute means that that she’ll probably make more from the state’s Public Employees Retirement System (PERS) than most people earn working 40 hours a week.

All of this might have something to do with a certain water-related scandal of some sort. We can’t call it Watergate, because apparently that’s already been taken.

The story, of course, is that Smith and other PPS officials knew for years that there was lead in the water of drinking fountains at literally dozens of Portland schools and didn’t bother to tell anyone.

Parents are understandably upset about it. There was a meeting a few weeks back, and my friend Bruce Broussard was among those in attendance. Bruce is a Vietnam veteran and a small business owner who also happens to have grandchildren in Portland schools. He ran as the Republican candidate for Portland mayor and took fourth place, despite not raising or spending much money, and is also the host of Oregon Voters Digest on Portland Community Media. I occasionally appear as a guest on his show.

Bruce was hoping to get some answers from Smith at that forum, which was moderated by Sen. Mike Dembrow (D-Portland). And when Dembrow tried to change the subject and move on, the angry parents in the audience turned on him all at once and nearly booed him out of the building five times in the space of three minutes.

The teachers union is also pretty unhappy. They do, after all, exist to ensure safe working conditions for their members. It’s not quite the same as the t-shirt factory fires that helped cause unions to be formed in the first place, but it’s not an ideal situation, either.

Another function of those unions is to negotiate their members’ salaries, although teachers everywhere are chronically and notoriously underpaid. Smith was seemingly able to negotiate her generous compensation package on her own and presumably without the help of any union representatives.

There seems to be a certain set pattern in Portland these days, in which officials know about clear environmental hazards and choose to do absolutely nothing about it. The other great example of this is the Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) dropping the ball on preventing pollution in Southeast Portland.

I was at one of Governor Kate Brown’s press conferences at the capitol not too long ago when a reporter asked her about the situation.

“Hey…isn’t that near your neighborhood?”

When Dembrow was asked about all of this at the meeting, he indicated that some state funds would have to be involved as part of the solution. That will probably end up being the case.

The state’s reaction to the DEQ issues leaves much to be desired, as the agency announced surprise inspections of businesses throughout Oregon who had nothing to do with the Portland pollution problem.

These events have caused much of what I’ve seen while working in the Legislature the past few years to make much more sense. That body is, after all, dominated by Democrats from Portland, where layers upon layers of big government are still somehow inadequate to protect the city’s residents from pollution and its children from lead in the water at their schools.

Public officials with six-figure salaries well above those of the average taxpayer fail to do their jobs, are never held accountable and ultimately ride off into the sunset, paid with pensions. Those pensions are far beyond what the average Portland resident who pays for it all will ever make. It means that people like Smith and those DEQ officials will be paid more to not work than most of their tax base does to work just hard enough to stay poor.

Those residents then get mad—and understandably so—and call legislators like Dembrow to demand that the state do more to hold polluters accountable. They, in turn, pass laws in kneejerk response that threaten the very existence of struggling small businesses in rural parts of the state. The people there end up suffering, even though those parts of Oregon are among the most pristine on Earth.

That is, unless there are catastrophic wildfires going on. This was the case about a year ago. There were multiple fires burning in the rural district represented by my boss, and elsewhere in the state, too. A DEQ official was in the office explaining the modeling used by that agency as part of environmental legislation like the controversial Low Carbon Fuel Standard. He claimed that one-third of Oregon’s carbon output was from transportation.

“How much is from catastrophic wildfires?”

None, as it were. Presumably, that’s because they can’t tax it. Because the state is going to need as much money as it can get if it’s going to keep paying elaborate pensions to officials like Smith and those fine folks at DEQ.

Those retired officials can then move from Portland and Salem to the rural areas, and be among the best-off people in those communities. They would probably be pleased that they won’t have to rely on the local economies there to subsist, after Portland legislators and DEQ officials under their direction put their last remaining industries out of business.

But once enough of that happens, there won’t be a tax base to fund their lavish lifestyles anymore. People like Smith would then have to come out of retirement and put their sharply honed skills to work in whatever remains of the private sector, where incompetence of the kind they’ve demonstrated typically leads to termination.

Success, on the other hand, results in your business being targeted and shut down by DEQ.

This is the same agency that can’t protect you from pollution in the state’s largest city, where kids and teachers are exposed to lead in the drinking water at their schools, and officials who know about it fail to take action and respond to the scandal by announcing their retirements.

The cycle will keep repeating itself as expensive failures add up, unless and until we demand better from our leaders.

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