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City's choice on water treatment

We don’t envy Baker City councilors in the decision they will eventually need to make about protecting the city’s drinking water from threats present and, potentially, in the future.

But we agree with their choice last Tuesday, which wasn’t unanimous, to take more time to ponder the matter.

In fact, we recommend the current council not commit the city to spending any more money on water treatment. Four of the seven councilors have only one more meeting before their terms end and they are replaced by the four councilors who were elected Nov. 6. The new councilors — Mike Downing, Barbara Johnson, Kim Mosier and Richard Langrell — should have a chance to look into the city’s water treatment options.

What we know now is that the city needs to have a new level of water treatment in place by October 2016 to comply with rules from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

The city’s only current precaution — adding chlorine to the water — is not effective against such parasites as cryptosporidium and giardia.

The solution city officials have focused on is installing equipment that exposes water to ultraviolet light that inactivates those parasites.

That option, which could cost $2 million or more, is less expensive than another, which is to build a filtration plant.

The projected cost for a filtration plant is $15 million.

But there’s more to this decision than dollars.

Filtration, though more costly, also has significant advantages over UV treatment, which is effective at dealing with certain waterborne parasites but has no other benefits.

For one, a filtration plant would comply not only with the pending 2016 rules, but also with any foreseeable requirements the EPA might impose for drinking water.

Baker City is a rarity among public water systems in that it’s not mandated to filter its water, even though its sources are streams and springs (rather than groundwater).

Just three other cities in Oregon also are exempt from the filtration requirement.

We’re not so naivé as to expect that the federal government won’t impose more stringent regulations on drinking water in the future. The odds probably are better than even that, within the next few decades, the EPA will eliminate the filtration exemption for surface water sources.

Were that to happen, the city would likely have to build a filtration plant, rendering the installation of a UV system essentially a waste of money.

The other credible threat, and possibly the more imminent one, to the city’s water is a wildfire in the 10,000-acre watershed, much of which is densely forested. A large fire could foul streams with ash and dirt, a problem UV light won’t fix but a filtration plant might.

Councilor Beverly Calder, one of the four councilors whose terms end this year, said she thinks that city should choose the treatment option that deals with the 2016 EPA standards as well as conceivable threats beyond that.

Given the limitations of UV treatment, spending less money on that equipment now, to avoid the bigger bill from a filtration plant, might turn out to be a bad bargain in the end.

What councilors need now — or, rather, next year when the four new officials take their seats — are estimates for how much the city would have to boost water bills to pay the long-term debt it would incur from either type of treatment.

Councilors also need to understand the full range of benefits a filtration plant would offer compared with UV treatment, and investigate the possibility of state and federal grants or low-interest, long-term loans to cover some of the cost.

Although we applaud the current City Council’s concern for sparing water customers from unnecessary expenses, a filtration plant might represent a better investment if it’s built at current costs.

With the ability to spread the cost over decades and about 4,500 ratepayers, the difference in monthly bills between the UV system and a filtration plant might be negligible.

One thing’s sure, though: Nobody would be pleased if the city ends up buying both types of treatment, the “cheap” UV system now and the expensive filtration plant a decade or two in the future.

Reasons we're thankful

On this eve of Thanksgiving we celebrate a couple of reasons — and there are many more, to be sure — why we’re thankful we live in Baker County.

The first involves the generosity of someone who seeks no recognition for a wonderful deed.

We got a call last week from Joann Wellman at All In One Wireless in Baker City. The business is participating in the annual Coats For Kids campaign, which, despite its name, actually collects winter coats for people of all ages.

Joann told us that a customer, who requested anonymity, donated $3,000 — enough to buy 76 new coats.

As much as we’d like to know the identity of this donor — it would make a great story, after all — we also appreciate that the joy of helping others can be far more powerful and lasting than being recognized publicly for doing so.

The bottom line is that almost six dozen local residents will be warmer this winter.

The second bright light hasn’t sought attention for her achievements, either. But Nanette Lehman hasn’t the luxury of requesting anonymity.

Lehman, who teaches second grade at Haines Elementary — a rather conspicuous job — was recently honored as Oregon’s Teacher of the Year for 2012-13.

To put it another way, Lehman is among the very best practitioners of a profession whose importance can hardly be exaggerated.

Were you assembling the kind of community that people would clamor to move to, excellent schools and philanthropic residents would be two of the most vital blocks of its foundation.

Baker County has both.

Which makes us fortunate indeed.

Pass jobs bill for vets

It’s a sad fact that getting Congress to spend billions to put U.S. troops in war zones is easier than convincing lawmakers to help veterans find jobs when they’re back home.

A prime example of this is the Veterans Jobs Corps Act, pending in the Senate.

The bill, which would allocate $1 billion over five years to help train post 9/11 veterans to work as police officers, firefighters and in national parks and other public land-managing agencies.

The legislation, which Oregon Democratic Sen. Jeff Merkley is advocating for, garnered 58 votes in September, but it fell two short of passage because Republicans vowed to filibuster.

The objection, as explained by Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., in September, is both callous and ludicrous.

“When we find ourselves in $16 trillion of debt and we pay for a five-year bill over 10 years, we make the problem worse,” Coburn said.

But here’s the thing: The money to pay for the job training, though it would be collected over 10 years, would come from such sources as Medicare providers that are delinquent in paying taxes.

It’s not as if we’d be borrowing money from China.

Moreover, Coburn’s claim that the funding strategy would “make the problem” worse is barely credible, considering $1 billion is a pittance in the federal budget.

We’re more interested in what the bill would make better — namely, an unemployment rate for veterans that exceeds the national average.

End Knight’s censure, but without a recall

Baker School Board Chair Lynne Burroughs and board member Mark Henderson made a major mistake in April when they voted to censure their colleague, Kyle Knight.

More specifically, they erred in making the censure not merely a public condemnation of Knight, which is the typical approach in such cases, but by also imposing punitive measures.

With the support of Superintendent Walt Wegener, Henderson and Burroughs have withheld information from Knight, excluded him from subcommittee meetings and prohibited him from meeting with district officials. By doing so they have in effect partially disenfranchised the nearly 1,600 district patrons who voted for Knight in May 2011.

The board members’ and Wegener’s claims — that Knight violated a host of state and federal laws, as well as the U.S. Constitution itself, by telling the media that a district employee was suspected of (and later convicted of) trying to steal money from the district — are wrong.

Knight’s censure should be revoked.

There are two ways this could potentially happen.

The first is that voters could recall Henderson and Burroughs in the Dec. 11 special election. Their replacements, who would be appointed by the remaining board members — Knight, Andrew Bryan and Jim Longwell — probably would join Knight and Longwell in voting to cancel the censure (Bryan voted with Burroughs and Henderson in favor of the censure; Longwell voted no, as, naturally, did Knight).

The second option is that Knight, who in September filed a $700,000 civil rights lawsuit against the district, Henderson, Burroughs and Wegener, will convince a judge to revoke the censure. 

We think it’s likely that a judge will do so, considering the weakness of the case Burroughs, Henderson and Bryan made to justify censuring Knight.

We hope this latter, legal, route is how the school board dispute is resolved.

Recalling Henderson and Burroughs next month would no doubt be satisfying to some of their critics. We understand, and share, the critics’ frustration.

We opposed the censure vote this spring.

We have criticized Burroughs, Henderson and Wegener for acting as though Oregon’s public records and public meetings laws were intended to exclude the public when in fact the laws’ actual purpose is to ensure the public can keep track of what its elected officials and public agencies are up to.

Advocating for grown-up ways to settle this dispute have gone unheeded.

In late September we suggested a return to the status quo ante — the board withdraws Knight’s censure, Knight drops the lawsuit and the recall proponents suspend their campaign.

None of those things has happened.

To be clear, our preference for ending Knight’s censure by way of his lawsuit — and with no monetary award — rather than through a recall should not be construed in any way as an endorsement of Burroughs and Henderson.

But a recall simply removes board members without either correcting their actions, or blocking the board or another public body from repeating their mistake.

In the best interests of Baker County, the overriding goal should be revoking the censure, the aspect of this controversy that has had the most direct, and troubling, effect on the district’s patrons now, and could have in the future if punitive censures remain possible.

If this goal can be accomplished without removing elected officials from office — itself a form of disenfranchisement, as Burroughs and Henderson have supporters as well — and without saddling the school district or, more likely, its insurance provider, with a bill exceeding half a million dollars, then so much the better.

Moreover, a judge’s ruling would serve as a legal precedent that should prevent the Baker School Board, as well as other public bodies statewide, from enacting punitive censures against elected officials on trumped up charges that, as in Knight’s case, have no merit.

Our votes do matter

It’s natural for some Baker County voters to feel a trifle disenchanted in the aftermath of last week’s election.

Slightly more than two-thirds of us — 67.5 percent — cast our votes in the presidential race for Republican Mitt Romney.

President Barack Obama, who handily won a second term, polled just 28 percent here.

Baker County is hardly unique in this regard, of course.

Geopolitically, Oregon looks like a sea of Republican red with scattered islands of Democratic blue — 25 of the state’s 36 counties went for Romney.

Four of those 25 counties were even more pro-Romney than Baker County — Lake, 75.7 percent; Grant, 74.8 percent; Harney, 72.7 percent; and Malheur, 69 percent.

The national map shows a similar colorscape.

But lest any local voters lament that their opinions were rendered moot, consider Congress. For the eighth straight election, voters in Oregon’s 2nd Congressional District, which includes all of the state east of the Cascades, elected Republican Greg Walden to a two-year term.

A compelling case can be made that Walden’s position more directly affects Baker County than whoever is living in the White House. When a flood wrecks irrigation ditches, for instance,  it’s Walden who’s likely to be the most vocal and influential advocate for local needs and concerns. Our majority voice still rings clearly in the House of Representatives.

Letters strike a civil tone

Politics has earned its reputation as a nasty business.

National campaigns that include the quadrennial presidential election — only one more day of the current iteration, fortunately — tend to get particularly fractious.

No need to salt roads

We can’t fault the Oregon Department of Transportation for striving to make the state’s highways safer.

But the recent revelation that ODOT plans to reverse, albeit in a limited sense, the state’s long-standing aversion to spreading salt on its roads seems to us an unnecessary expenditure of time and money.

We use the word “revelation” intentionally.

ODOT didn’t ask the public, or even the state Transportation Commission, what it thinks before setting up the five-year pilot project.

The Oregonian reported last week that ODOT plans to experiment with rock salt, which melts snow and ice, on an 11-mile stretch of Interstate 5 near the California border, and the 120-mile section of U.S. Highway 95 in the state’s southeastern corner between Idaho and Nevada.

ODOT officials chose those highways because the three bordering states all salt their highways, creating the potential for drivers entering Oregon to almost immediately go from wet pavement to ice or packed snow.

ODOT didn’t offer The Oregonian any proof that this transition is responsible for highway crashes.

The evidence is overwhelming, though, that spreading salt on highways accelerates the growth of rust on cars.

Salt also can pollute streams and groundwater sources.

It’s not as if ODOT is powerless to deal with slippery highways.

The agency already uses deicing liquids that aren’t as likely as salt to damage cars or the environment.

Moreover, the prevalence of technological advances — key among them better studless snow tires and electronic stability-control systems, the latter mandatory on all new cars starting with the 2012 model year — has contributed to an unprecedented decline in highway deaths in Oregon. 

In 2010, a total of 292 people died in highway crashes in the state, the fewest in more than 60 years.

The death toll rose slightly in 2011, to 310, but the rate is down 3 percent from last year so far in 2012.

Oregon’s roads, based on the volume of traffic, have never been safer. Salt might not make things safer, but they’ll definitely introduce new problems.

Elect Romney as president

The crux of the presidential race is this question: Have President Barack Obama’s policies failed to revive the U.S. economy because they are flawed, or because they haven’t had sufficient time to take effect?

We believe the former is true.

That tops the list of reasons why we hope voters will elect Republican Mitt Romney to replace Obama.

To be clear, “flawed” is not synonymous with “wrong.”

The president’s faith in the federal government’s ability to cure macroeconomic ills is not implausible.

Yet the prescriptions he has offered during his term, most notably the 2009 stimulus bill, simply haven’t paid off as the president and his supporters in Congress insisted they would.

Despite recent hints of improvement — a relatively robust stock market, a modest decline in unemployment rates — we’re not willing to take the risk that four more years of similar approaches will reverse the nation’s troubling course.

Although Obama and Romney sometimes sound similar on the campaign trail in touting their plans to “get America working again,” the differences in their philosophies are significant.

As his maneuvering on the stimulus bill and on Obamacare showed, the president sees Washington, D.C., as the origin of an economic revival, regardless of what the people who have run successful companies believe.

Romney, for instance.

He makes the compelling argument that businesses are more likely to prosper when they face fewer impediments from the capital, whether those be taxes or regulations.

Although we’re not so naivé as to believe that Romney’s election will mark a new era of bipartisanship in Congress, his ability as the Republican governor of Massachusetts to work closely, and effectively, with a Democrat-dominated legislature is telling.

President Obama is a good and earnest man. But his record is one of failure. We urge Americans to give Mitt Romney a chance to do better.

Re-elect Southwick as sheriff

Mitch Southwick has earned a third term as Baker County’s top law enforcement official.

Southwick has been an effective administrator — one so respected by his peers that they elected him as president of the Oregon State Sheriffs’ Association in 2008.

Southwick has not been content, though, to manage from his office.

We appreciate his willingness to get involved in search and rescue efforts, to regularly visit outlying cities, and to be an active member of his community through the Lions Club and other outlets.

In addition to overseeing the sheriff’s office, Southwick is responsible for the Baker County Jail and the Parole and Probation Department.

We also find Southwick’s no-nonsense attitude refreshing.

Although he has maintained a good working relationship with the county commissioners, Southwick points out, and rightly so, that “my boss is the people of Baker County. I don’t work for the commissioners — I can oppose them if I want.”

Southwick’s opponent, Dee Gorrell, has impressive law enforcement credentials, including experience with the Baker County Sheriff’s Office.

But Southwick’s resumé is longer still — including 28 years with the Oregon State Police, 18 of those years as a supervisor or manager, before he “retired” and was elected in 2004 as sheriff.

More importantly, though, Southwick has proved his ability to perform his current job at a high level, and expressed his eagerness to continue doing so for four more years.

Elect Knute Buehler as Secretary of State

Knute Buehler has taken an interesting approach to the inherent challenges of his candidacy for Oregon Secretary of State.

One of those is to convince voters that Secretary of State is a vital job, and that choosing the right person for the post can have wide-ranging effects on residents across the state.

Buehler, who already bears the considerable burden of being a Republican in a state that has elected few candidates from his party to statewide office in the past 30 years, has emphasized — correctly — that the Secretary of State can have a major influence on important issues.

More to the point, he makes a compelling argument that his challenger, incumbent Democrat Kate Brown, has not wielded that influence with much vigor.

Oregon’s Public Employee Retirement System (PERS), for instance, is not, strictly speaking, under the Secretary of State’s bailiwick.

Yet PERS’ exorbitant, and growing, appetite for tax dollars not only at the state level, but for cities, counties and school districts statewide, is a looming fiscal disaster, and Buehler, unlike Brown, has proposed a series of reforms that could help ease the PERS threat.

That’s what we expect from an elected official, regardless of what their official job description says.

We also like Buehler’s enthusiasm for taking a more active role as a member of the State Land Board, and questioning the status quo. The Secretary of State is one of three members of that board, which among other things sets policy for how state forests are managed.

Finally, we believe Buehler will be more aggressive than Brown has been in using the state’s audits division, which the Secretary of State oversees, to find frivolous spending in state agencies.

Oregon voters should elect Buehler and give him a chance to make good on his plan to turn the Secretary of State into something more than another office in Salem.

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