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The Botched Morrison Bridge Troubles County Candidates

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AS MULTNOMAH COUNTY staffers make plans to repair a badly botched rehabilitation of the Morrison Bridge, silence reigns.

A lawsuit between the county and various companies involved in the ill-fated $4.2 million project isn't scheduled to go to trial for about a year, and the county's legal attack dogs are cautioning everyone—commissioners, engineers, spokespeople—to keep commentary to a minimum.

So we're not getting the types of satisfying explanations one might expect when a bridge deck is coming undone, with millions of potentially wasted dollars at stake.

But happily, some folks are still immune to those legal admonitions: the candidates looking to join the Multnomah County Board of Commissioners. And they're overwhelmingly concerned with what they've heard.

Thanks to the scandal surrounding former County Chair Jeff Cogen's relationship with an employee (see our coverage, pg. 8), two seats on the board are unexpectedly in play for a May election—Cogen's vacated seat, and that of former County Commissioner Deborah Kafoury, who had to quit to run for Cogen's spot.

The Mercury rang up the two top candidates for each seat and asked for their reflections.

Why, for instance, did county engineers switching out the Morrison's steel decking with a relatively new fiber-reinforced polymer (FRP) agree to use panels that had cracks and patches of missing material, as the Mercury has reported ["Fingers Crossed," News, Oct 16]? Internal documents indicate workers could have rejected the panels, but thought they'd save money and time by keeping them.

Also, shouldn't officials have been aware of a study that suggested the FRP deck system wasn't suited to a bridge like the Morrison ["The Tea Leaves," News, Sept 25]?

And what about the contractor, Ridgefield, Washington-based Conway Construction? Was the county hamstrung, as insiders have repeatedly suggested, into taking Conway's bargain-basement bid for the project? Or could officials have insisted on picking an outfit based on expertise rather than price?

Some of the candidates were happy to take strong, specific positions, while others offered more general prescriptions. All of them think the Morrison project is a damn shame.

Brian Wilson, running for Kafoury's old spot, has never formally held a government gig, but he's been around plenty of public projects—including helping get the Sellwood Bridge replacement off the ground. By day, he does operations and finance for his family's real estate firm, Kalberer Company.

"The county gambled and they lost," Wilson says. "That would be bad enough if they were just risking our money. They risked the safety of tens of thousands of people who use that bridge every day. It is a decision that should not have been made."

He continues, "In my business, we build things. If we make a mistake and select an inferior product, we'll have problems. The Morrison Bridge, from where I sit, looks to be a mistake that never should have been made."

State Representative Jules Bailey, running against Wilson, has represented a swath of inner-eastside Portland in the Oregon Legislature since 2008. An economist by trade, he prides himself on penciling out smart ways to use public dollars.

"There definitely needs to be an accounting of the process by which the contractors and materials for that project were selected," Bailey says. "If there were problems that were foreseen beforehand, I think we need to understand how the project went forward."

Jim Francesconi, an attorney and former Portland city commissioner, is making a foray back into politics after an unsuccessful bid for mayor in 2004. He's running for Cogen's old seat.

"I'm not convinced that the low-bid process, in a project as complicated and important as this, is the right approach to get sufficient expertise, or even lowest cost for the taxpayers," he says. "That raises an issue, a lesson moving forward."

Francesconi's also concerned there are so few suppliers for the decking the county used. Only two products were deemed appropriate for the Morrison project, and one is no longer offered. "When you're trying new building materials, new approaches, you've got to make sure the research is there to justify it," he says. "And you have to make sure there's more than a few suppliers."

Then there's Deborah Kafoury, already a central figure in Portland-area politics and looking to cement that role as Multnomah County's top official. But she's also more connected to the Morrison project than any of the other candidates.

Kafoury had to check with the county, she said, before she could answer the Mercury's questions. Reached again, she offered a familiar response.

"I know that we'll be looking at what played out from the beginning to the end of this at the end of the litigation," Kafoury says. "I can't really say anything."

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