Editorial: PacifiCorp does what is right

PacifiCorp has now demonstrated a gift for doing what’s right on Mirror Pond. It just needs to demonstrate a few more gifts.

The company announced Tuesday that it would fix one of the leaks in the dam.

The leak helped make the pond look and smell about as pleasant as inhaling a noseful of skunk.

There was the potential that lower water levels would continue right through the summer. Boating and paddling could be curtailed. Floating wouldn’t be much fun. Swimming would be reserved for people with short arms. And for accuracy’s sake, the pond’s name should be switched to Muddy Pond.

In December, PacifiCorp said the dam would not be repaired, because it was not cost effective for the amount of power it produced. The tune has changed. Mark Tallman, PacifiCorp’s vice president for renewable resources, says it fully understands the community’s concern about the potential for low water levels during summer recreation months.

“It’s possible Mirror Pond would have remained full this summer without this fix, but in our view this is the right action to take at this time,” Tallman said.

It will enable PacifiCorp to restore hydro generation. PacifiCorp also says it should help negotiations with the Bend community to determine if keeping the dam intact is a better option than removal. The cost of the repair is estimated at $250,000.

With that issue seemingly resolved, the Mirror Pond committee is working on getting the community better information so it can make a good decision. The public really needs to know how much it would cost to remove the dam and do any mitigation and how much it would cost to continue to operate the dam and keep the silt buildup under control.

We support keeping the pond, but that does depend on what it would cost.

Now that PacifiCorp has taken this right step, what will it do next?

PacifiCorp’s new release about fixing the dam acknowledges it may have some interests that are not the same as the community’s.

“The company is very committed to trying to find the best possible outcome regarding this facility that balances the community’s priorities for Mirror Pond and our regulatory obligations,” it says. And it goes on to add that “we are hopeful an agreement can be reached that allows this to happen and also protects the interest of our rate-paying customers in Bend and throughout our six-state service area.”

We hope that is true, too.

Get more answers on Mirror Pond

Dam. No dam. Those are the only two options for Bend’s Mirror Pond.

But the community cannot make a decision about the best option without better information about costs and other uncertainties.

The water rights issue is muddy. It’s not clear if once the dam is no longer used for power generation, the state would allow a dam to create a pond without a special exception to state law.

Would the local delegation back such a bill? Could lawmakers get it through the Legislature?

That’s one unknown. Many are about costs and liabilities.

If the decision is to remove the dam, what will the costs be?

What would it cost to remove the dam? One estimate for the Mirror Pond committee put it at about $11 million. PacifiCorp told members of the Mirror Pond committee it believes that is too high but has not provided its own estimate.

There are other issues.

Two local businessmen, Bill Smith, developer of the Old Mill District, and Todd Taylor, president and CEO of the construction company Taylor Northwest, have signed a contract for an option to purchase the land under Mirror Pond. If the river recedes to a channel, would there be developable land exposed? Would riverfront homes become former riverfront homes? What would become of the footbridge? There is no easement for it. Could the parks along the pond be expanded?

PacifiCorp is also interested in keeping its substation near the dam and the adjacent parking lot.

Then there are the costs with the decision to keep the dam.

Smith and Taylor are interested in seeing the pond preserved, so landowner permission to dredge silt should not be an issue. Raising what Taylor estimated would be $3 million to pay for the dredging would be.

The dam also leaks. There is seepage in other places. Some of the structure is 100 years old.

There would be costs for whatever repairs are needed for the dam now and whatever maintenance issues there are in the future.

PacifiCorp has not released any specifics of its recent dam inspection. And contrary to what was said at Monday’s Mirror Pond committee meeting, the state’s dam inspector has no plans to release any report based on his October trip to the dam. His last report from 2012 does not put a dollar figure on repairs.

So the community needs an independent estimate of what the dam would cost to repair and maintain.

There has been some discussion of adding a fish ladder to the dam. What would that cost?

Only after the community gets better estimates can it effectively negotiate with PacifiCorp or present options to voters. It should be clear, though, that PacifiCorp faces significant costs for removing the dam. Those costs and repair costs for the dam should be deducted from whatever price it wants from the community.

Source: The Bulletin 2013

Next steps for Mirror Pond

If the leaders trying to find a solution to Mirror Pond had accomplished something more than secrecy and stagnation, two Bend businessmen might not have felt an obligation to step in.

Bill Smith, the developer of the Old Mill District, and Todd Taylor, president and CEO of the construction company Taylor Northwest, have signed an option to buy the land under Mirror Pond. They say they will transfer the option to purchase the land to any local government entity willing to preserve the pond.

One Mirror Pond issue resolved.

And we also now know PacifiCorp wants out. It wants to transfer ownership of the dam to somebody else.

Two Mirror Pond issues resolved.

Finally, on Mirror Pond there is actually movement toward decisions.

The various Mirror Pond committees have seemed like experiments in forming a new species of government body liberated from the obligation of making a decision. Measuring the committees’ movement would have produced a reading close to absolute zero.

Yes, we know, Mirror Pond’s future is a complicated decision. And no matter which way leaders decide — preserve the pond or rip out the dam and restore a more natural river flow — some people are going to be unhappy. It was also required that PacifiCorp clearly state its intentions.

But too much was still adrift after years of committee meetings. There has been a disquieting pursuit of secrecy in decision-making and committee forming. When a committee did try to do something, it was a farcical attempt to get a sense of what the community wants for Mirror Pond through an unreliable online poll.

It’s no secret we favor preserving the pond, but there are some things that we all must know.

What would it cost to keep the dam in dollars and liabilities?

What would it cost to get rid of the dam and clean up?

Will the state allow the dam to continue to create a pond?

What will voters pay for?

The big responsibility is back on the Mirror Pond committee officials. Can they make a stunning break with the muddling past and amaze us all with leadership?

Source: The Bulletin 2013

Committee still striving for secrecy on Mirror Pond

The committee that’s trying to decide the future of Bend’s Mirror Pond held a meeting Tuesday that was open to the public.

That shouldn’t be an occasion to hand out medals. In this case, it initially felt like it.

But then the committee proceeded to renew its efforts to cultivate secrecy. Nobody’s getting a medal now.

A subset of the committee is going to hold private talks with Pacific Power to discuss the dam.

Those are the meetings that will attempt to get to the bottom of one of the crucial unanswered questions about Mirror Pond’s future: What is the dam’s future?

That answer goes a long way toward dictating if Mirror Pond stays Mirror Pond or returns to a more natural river.

The Mirror Pond committee’s plan is to have Bend Park & Recreation Director Don Horton, the district’s lawyer, Neil Bryant, and Bend City Councilor Mark Capell hold talks with Pacific Power. Nobody else would be allowed to watch.

The trio would then presumably return with whatever deal Pacific Power would agree to.

So, for one of the most crucial unanswered questions about Mirror Pond’s future, the deal is going to be decided behind closed doors.

It must be hard for some to remember that Oregon’s public meetings laws are about keeping the public’s business open to the public. At the same time, the law does recognize that there are some things that need a level of confidentiality — real estate transactions, some employee issues, litigation, trade secrets and more.

In Oregon, the instrument for such confidentiality is executive session. A governing body opens a public meeting. It then declares the reason it is going into executive session. It can then meet without the public, though the media can attend. It’s subject to the understanding that media representatives don’t directly report what goes on in executive session.

The media is there to improve its understanding of decisions so it can keep the public better informed. It is also there to be a watchdog — to ensure that what is discussed in executive session is appropriate.

The important thing to remember about Oregon’s law is that the nondisclosure requirement should be no broader than the public interest requires.

What the Mirror Pond committee is doing is going further. It is saying that those critical negotiations with Pacific Power should not be held in executive session. They should be held without any oversight at all.

The Mirror Pond committee’s aim should not be to preserve its privacy.

Source: The Bulletin ©2013

Keep the doors open

We take back what we said about city of Bend officials. It’s not at all clear they have come to their senses about keeping meetings about Mirror Pond’s future open to the public.

In fact, they seemed to have looked for a way to keep the public out.

Back in July, the Bend City Council and the Bend Park & Recreation District Board met together to talk about the future of Mirror Pond. They both passed resolutions creating a Mirror Pond subcommittee “to select and refine a final preferred vision for the future of Mirror Pond.” The subcommittee was to include a couple of members from the City Council, a pair from the park board, some other government officials and three citizen members.

When time came for the first meeting, the public was not notified. No agenda was publicly available. Bulletin employees were told they could not attend because it was not a public meeting.

To make a long anecdote shorter, we protested, they acquiesced and told us future meetings of the subcommittee would be open to public. The next meeting was noticed for Tuesday, Aug. 27, at 3 p.m. at the park district headquarters.

This week, Bend City Manager Eric King and City Attorney Mary Winters came in to talk to the editorial board. King said he said he agreed with us that the meetings should be open.

Winters did say, though, that she believes that a subset of a governing body can engage in fact-finding investigations without it being necessary under Oregon’s public meeting law that those investigative meetings be open to the public.

Then on Wednesday, the council passed an amendment to the original resolution recasting the subcommittee as “an exploratory, fact-finding body to advise and assist project staff and the consultant team.”

It’s hard to know what to make of that.

It could be a move to enable the Mirror Pond subcommittee to fly under the legal requirements that the meetings be open.

We don’t expect that real estate transactions, such as negotiations with Pacific Power over the dam, should be required to be open to the public. Oregon’s public meeting law is designed to give exceptions for such matters.

But it would be outrageous if the amendment’s purpose was to game the public meetings law. We hope the council is not showing a passion for secrecy on Mirror Pond’s future. We’ll start to find out on Tuesday.

Source: The Bulletin ©2013

No more Mirror Pond secrecy

Bend city and park officials have come to their senses and decided to let the public in on meetings to decide Mirror Pond’s future.

Last week, they had made the outrageous decision to throw up a Great Wall of secrecy around the pond.

They changed their minds a day after The Bulletin protested.

Now they need to please keep it straight that government should not hide what’s going on from the public.

How did they get this so wrong?

Last month, the City Council and the park board formed a subcommittee to “select and refine a final preferred vision for the future of Mirror Pond.” The subcommittee also needs to sort out the dam’s future and the ownership of the land under the pond.

It held a meeting Tuesday at the Bend Park & Recreation District office to get started.

No public notice was provided of the meeting. No agenda was available.

When members of The Bulletin showed up, they were told they could not attend.

Don Horton, executive director of the Bend Park & Recreation District, said it’s not a public meeting.

Neil Bryant, the park district’s lawyer, was also there. We showed him some relevant statutes. We called our attorney.

One excuse they gave was that the subcommittee was not going to make a final decision. We showed them the minutes that say the committee is supposed to “select and refine a final preferred vision for the future of Mirror Pond.”

Bryant told us he had not researched the matter. On Wednesday, he prepared a confidential legal memo about the issue. Bend City Councilor Mark Capell, who is a member of the Mirror Pond subcommittee, called us after receiving the memo. He said future meetings would follow Oregon’s public meetings law.

Oregon’s law doesn’t insist that every single thing at a public meeting be done in public. There are exceptions, such as for legal and personnel matters and real estate negotiations. That gives the committee the ability to negotiate some sensitive issues privately.

It shouldn’t take a newspaper making a ruckus for city and park officials to know that the public should know what its government is doing.

Source: The Bulletin ©2013

Don’t let the Mirror Pond committee drift

The art of figuring out what to do with Bend’s Mirror Pond requires answers to specific questions: What does the community want? What is the future of the dam?

The process Bend has used so far has discovered neither. It seemed determined to make a rendezvous with a destiny that didn’t include figuring out what the community should do.

The Bend City Council and the Bend Park & Recreation District Board have now formed a new committee.

Let’s try something different this time.

Let’s use the best methods to find out what the community wants.

Relying on online questionnaires may put a notch in somebody’s playbook of gathering community input. It doesn’t say much at all about what the community wants.

We know Bend’s leaders are acutely sensitive to having hefty community involvement, because it is important, and because of the questions the City Council took on its surface water project. It still needs to be a community process that will answer questions.

Do a scientific poll. Of course, polls have limitations. Short of a communitywide vote on every option, there is no better way.

But first, let’s find some answers about the dam and spell out for the public whatever is known about the ownership of the riverbottom.

Pacific Power can’t say how long it will keep the dam. Roger Raeburn, manager of dam safety at Pacific Power, doesn’t have a study that says the dam may last “x” more years.

That shouldn’t stop the new committee from getting answers on its own about what’s possible. For instance, does the city really have a chance to keep the dam if Pacific Power doesn’t want it?

No matter what is decided about Mirror Pond’s future, the leaders who make the decision are going to be beset with questions and complaints. That is part of leadership. Don’t set the new committee again on course to drift.

Source: The Bulletin ©2013

Mirror Pond decision requires focus on dam

If the community wants to preserve Bend’s Mirror Pond, it all comes down to the dam. Will Pacific Power maintain it? If not, is there any way for the community to take it over or otherwise preserve its pond-creating effect?

If the answer to both of those questions is no, options to save the pond in its traditional form are severely limited.

Yet both the park district and the power company report they haven’t tried to find those answers, because they’re waiting to see what the community wants.

They supposedly will learn about the community’s desires today when survey results are presented to a joint meeting of the Bend City Council and the Bend Park & Recreation District board.

But today’s presentation won’t actually tell them what residents prefer; it will tell them only what a few self-selected people think. An unscientific survey will be offered, and may be interpreted as meaning far more than it does.

The park district’s Mirror Pond Project Manager, Jim Figurski, and Pacific Power’s Regional Community Manager, Angela Price, say they will consider the questions about the dam only once this process tells them what the community wants.

That’s backwards, because the community can’t know what it wants, or what it’s willing to pay for, unless it knows the dam’s future.

Figurski said he expects the council and park board to identify a preferred option by the end of the month. Then the work starts on the details of how it could be accomplished and at what cost.

We’ve argued repeatedly for preserving Mirror Pond, but the future of the dam is critical. It would be foolish to spend millions dredging the pond if the dam that makes it possible has a short-term future. We hope the decision-makers will put the survey results in proper perspective and demand real information before narrowing the options.

Source: The Bulletin ©2013

Mirror Pond questionnaire doesn’t reveal public opinion

If more people fill out an unscientific questionnaire, does that make it mean more? Clearly not, which has been the problem from the start with the approach of the Mirror Pond Steering Committee.

Now officials are concerned that too few people are filling out the second questionnaire or coming to the latest round of meetings.

Project manager Jim Figurski said last week that if more people fill out the questionnaire, decision-makers will be more “comfortable” using the “information.”

If true, that’s unfortunate, because the “information” will be all but meaningless, no matter how many people participate.

Mirror Pond, the central feature of Bend’s downtown, is turning into a mud flat, gradually filling in since it was last dredged in 1984. After years of discussion about what to do, the steering committee was formed and spent January and February holding meetings and collecting responses to its first questionnaire, leading to its June presentation of alternatives and price tags. The new questionnaire asks for reactions to those alternatives, which include doing nothing, preserving the pond as it is, returning it to a natural river, and steps in between. The cutoff date for responses is July 12, and results are to be presented to a joint meeting of the Bend City Council and the Bend Park & Recreation District’s board on July 16.

We’ve argued for dredging to preserve Mirror Pond as it is, although such a decision does depend on resolving questions about the future of the nearby dam and ownership of the land beneath the pond.

Unscientific questionnaires or surveys can easily be influenced by organized groups or even loose coalitions on either side of an issue. They tell you nothing about what a majority thinks or wants or is willing to pay for. And yet the discussion about Mirror Pond has treated these limited bits of reaction as if they mean something about general public opinion.

It’s a dangerous approach, because it builds public policy on a phony foundation. Without at least a scientific survey, the public opinion portion of this project can be worse than meaningless, it can be false.

Mirror Pond decision depends on the dam

Central Oregon abounds in pristine river scenes, where water follows natural paths edged by marshy areas and riparian shrubbery.

In downtown Bend, though, for decades we’ve had something else: an urban pond, a landscaped place, partly lined with retaining walls and walkways.

We’d like to keep it.

It’s not that we don’t value the natural, but we like the urban landscape as well. Bend ought to be able to have both, and Mirror Pond is our special exception. Some who share our view have called it the city’s crown jewel.

We’ve argued for dredging, even if it’s expensive, even if it has to be done again in 20 years. We’ve argued that people would likely be willing to pay for it if given a straightforward choice. Without a vote, or at least a scientific survey, though, we can’t be sure that’s true.

Instead the Mirror Pond Steering Committee launched the current series of meetings and questionnaires and consultant’s renderings. Lots of opinions have been expressed, but we still have no idea what the majority in Bend wants and would support.

Meanwhile, the process focused attention on a critical factor: The dam that created the pond a century ago isn’t a sure thing going forward.

Pacific Power owns the dam, and although there appear to be no plans to remove it in the short-term, there’s no assurance of its long-term survival. It’s entirely possible it won’t make business sense for the company to preserve it at some point.

We can’t argue for spending millions dredging the pond unless we know the dam will be there long enough to justify it. That’s where the focus of attention should be, not on alternatives that turn Mirror Pond into one more natural river scene.

Source: The Bulletin ©2013