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Down the Drain?

Why Did the City Spend Sewer Money on Jazz? Efficiency.

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AS JAZZ HITS go, Dexter Gordon's "Second Balcony Jump" is at the joyful, swinging end of the spectrum—all brash saxophone and tinkling piano, with bass and drums playing a dutiful backdrop.

It's a tune that evokes visions of a swank '60s cocktail party. But on February 3, 2010, the strains of "Second Balcony Jump" bled out into the staid second-floor halls of the Portland Building—courtesy of your sewer bill.

The Bureau of Environmental Services (BES)—the city's sewer, stormwater, and environmental stewardship agency—paid $1,000 to local jazz musician Darrell Grant and some fellow musicians to treat staffers to a lunchtime concert in honor of Black History Month.

It's a paltry sum in the context of the bureau's $933 million budget. And officials defend the contract, signed under the stewardship of Commissioner Dan Saltzman, as part of a citywide diversity education program. But the expenditure also merits scrutiny in light of a debate that's currently raging following acknowledged abuses of Portland's sewer and water money.

City officials have already admitted it was a mistake to spend roughly $940,000 in money from water bills to build a state-of-the-art "Water House" in deep Northeast Portland. The city charter dictates such ratepayer money has to be spent on the water or sewer systems.

And furor over an attempted misallocation of almost $200,000 in ratepayer money during the 2012 budget season helped persuade Mayor Charlie Hales to fire Jack Graham, Portland's chief administrative officer, in November.

Last month, the Oregonian revealed the city misappropriated $70,000 in water and sewer money in purchasing a building for the police bureau in 2011, and the city is currently trying to fend off a lawsuit by industrial water users alleging wide-ranging abuse of ratepayer funds.

Many of the people behind that lawsuit are trying to convince voters to take the Portland Water Bureau and BES away from city council and put them in the hands of a new seven-member board.

So, given all this, the jazz concert contract—revealed in a public records request by the Mercury—raised questions. Namely, how does the agency justify spending money intended to maintain our aging sewer system on an afternoon of jazz?

It was a sensitive question, given the lawsuit, and it ran through the city attorney's office and staffers for Commissioner Nick Fish—currently in charge of BES—before an answer came back. The jazz concert, BES says, made its employees more efficient.

"Cultural awareness programs are no different than any other educational or benefit program for BES employees," read part of a response from the bureau. "There is nothing in the charter that suggests that the city cannot spend sewer ratepayer dollars on programs to enhance the cultural awareness and, ultimately, the workplace efficiency and satisfaction of BES employees."

BES cites the city's Diversity Development and Affirmative Action Office Strategic Development Plan, a document that lists a series of actions bureaus should take to encourage diversity. It mostly consists of nuts-and-bolts human resources policies, like complaint investigations and diversity trainings.

But there's also a recommendation that bureaus hold "monthly cultural celebrations" tied to different cultural groups affiliated with each month of the year.

BES has held 14 of these in the past seven years, spokesman Linc Mann says. Usually they'll involve a noontime film. For Native American Heritage Month, BES has asked merchants from the Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde to come sell their wares.

"Usually they're activities, and there's not a great deal of costs associated with them," Mann says. "This one was a little different."

According to Grant, a prominent Portland jazz pianist and professor at Portland State University, the February 2010 concert involved selections from John Coltrane, Freddie Hubbard, Sonny Rollins, Dexter Gordon, and others.

"And yes, I did talk a bit about the music, and touched on black history a bit, I believe," Grant wrote in an email.

According to BES, such information helps its employees "interact with and provide essential services to a culturally diverse citizenry."

And perhaps that's on the level. Even Kent Craford, a central force behind the lawsuit and effort to create a new board, and a tireless critic of water and sewer expenditures, didn't have much negative to offer.

"Our focus is on the bigger fish," he says, referring to the lawsuit. "There were dozens and dozens of expenditures that would have landed in the bucket. We couldn't take on everything."

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