Oregon May Leave Power Councilby Chris Mulick, Herald staff writer
Tri-City Herald, July 14, 2002
OLYMPIA -- Oregon is considering pulling out of the Northwest Power Planning Council to protest a bylaws change the state believes will further frustrate its efforts to get its council members elected chairman.
If Oregon does withdraw, it would be for the second time in the council's 21-year history. The state also withdrew over chairman elections for two months in 1990.
"It is an option, one of several being considered," Portland Councilman Eric Bloch said after meeting Thursday with Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber.
It figures to get more messy this time, revealing a serious personality clash between much of the council and Bloch that at one time even threatened to get physical.
As vice chairman, Bloch was in line to be elected chairman this year but was passed over when Washington's Larry Cassidy was re-elected to a controversial third term.
Kitzhaber is upset the council voted to eliminate term limits for the chairman position that otherwise would have required Cassidy to turn the gavel over to someone else. The governor, who is about to be term-limited out himself, is proposing to rotate the chairmanship among the four Northwest states every two years to guarantee equal distribution of power over time.
"We don't want more than our fair share," said Bloch, arguing the council should "rotate the bully pulpit."
But the plan is thin on support in the other Northwest capital cities of Olympia, Boise and Helena, Mont., where leaders believe the chairmanship should be awarded by building regional consensus. Many suspect Bloch would have used it as a bullhorn for broadcasting one state's views.
"He didn't have the trust of other council members," said Tom Karier, a council member from Spokane.
Cassidy agreed to let the council debate the matter beginning at a Wednesday meeting in Yakima, potentially opening a volatile can of worms just as the council is about to make major recommendations about river operations on the main stem of the Columbia.
"It wouldn't surprise me if Kitzhaber tried to pull Oregon off the council," Cassidy said. "He would be abandoning the council at the most inopportune time."
The eight-member council -- created by Congress in 1980 to drive fish recovery efforts while planning for suitable power supplies -- is made up of gubernatorial appointees from Oregon, Washington, Idaho and Montana.
Each state has two members, who make key recommendations on how to spend $186 million per year to support regional fish recovery efforts.
The chairman's powers are limited, since major policy decisions require at least a majority vote of the council. But the position, mostly charged with setting the council agenda, apparently holds enough influence to be worth fighting for.
"If it was purely symbolic, nobody would really care," said Steve Weiss, a policy analyst with the Northwest Energy Coalition, a group of environmental stakeholders.
While personality, leadership skills and vision have been at least equal considerations, electing a chairman arguably can be a political exercise that promotes moderates.
With the conservative influence of Montana and Idaho countered by the liberal influence of Oregon, moderate Washington council members can appear more palatable for election to leadership positions. The council has elected a chairman from Washington nine times, Montana six times, Idaho four times and Oregon three times.
Bloch argues Oregon is permanently handicapped in chairman elections because its politics are deemed "too risky."
For example, some suspect Kitzhaber's May speech in Spokane insisting dam removal remain under consideration to aid fish recovery is the kind of thing that would hurt an Oregon council member's chance at being elected chairman.
"If anything undermined the ability of the council to accept an Oregon chairman, that was it," said Darryll Olsen, a consultant for the Columbia-Snake River Irrigators Association.
That's why Oregon believes it may have to again play hardball to get what it wants. After winning just one of the first 10 annual chairman elections, Oregon forced the issue in 1990 by yanking its two members off the council in protest. The ploy by then-Gov. Neil Goldschmidt worked, and Oregon's two members returned within two months with assurances one would be elected chairman the following year.
Politics and personality
Until January, council bylaws stated a council member could not serve as chair for more than two one-year terms, a provision that guaranteed turnover. And of the 15 times the chairmanship has changed hands, the vice chairman has gained the top spot 11 times.
It was therefore implied that then-Vice Chairman Bloch would get Oregon what it wanted -- an opportunity to lead the council. But his penchant for tearing up motions, making condescending remarks and walking out to express disgust during meetings alienated other council members.
Witnesses recall a meeting two years ago when Bloch's antics angered his fellow Oregon representative so much that Pendleton's John Brogiotti suggested they take it outside. Both now say they don't recall the incident. If it did occur, it must have been a joke, Bloch said.
But multiple witnesses said it looked serious and that event illustrates Bloch's sometimes grating style.
"Eric has a style that at times can be offensive," Cassidy said.
Nonetheless, Bloch said complaints over his personality only make his case and that such considerations should not determine who is chairman.
"This is not a social club," he said.
Though Bloch said he would not have abused the chairmanship, personality and his bully-pulpit vision were enough to doom his chances in January.
"This chairmanship isn't meant to provide each state with a mechanism to further their interests," said John Hines, a Montana council member from Helena. "Turning it into a bully pulpit for any state is not helpful for the region. I think many council members see Eric as someone who would not work with the council as a whole."
Though other council members say it wasn't a large factor, Bloch's politics couldn't have helped. He easily is the most liberal council member.
So rather than turn the chairmanship over to Bloch or anyone else in its January election, the council eliminated its term limit provision and re-elected Cassidy. Bloch and Brogiotti stood together to oppose the motion to suspend the bylaws. But Brogiotti did not nominate Bloch for chairman and voted for Cassidy, who was re-elected on a 7-1 vote.
Others believe Brogiotti's vote for Cassidy was telling. Brogiotti said he voted for Cassidy because no one else was nominated and that he didn't nominate Bloch because it wouldn't have done any good.
In May, Kitzhaber revived the chairmanship dispute by sending a letter to the other Northwest governors criticizing the council's decision to change its bylaws just before an election and dispatched Bloch and Brogiotti to campaign for his new plan.
That, despite a 1998 vote supported by Brogiotti, who with one seat vacant at the time was Oregon's only vote on the council, compromised the same principle Kitzhaber now is promoting. At that time, the council voted to suspend its bylaws so it could re-elect Montana's John Etchart as chairman for a third term.
Further, part of Oregon's complaint is that it has gone the longest of the four states without an opportunity to lead the council. Its last council chairman was Angus Duncan in 1995.
But Oregon had another chance to push for the chairmanship in that 1998 election. Brogiotti was vice chairman at the time, meaning he effectively voted to pass himself over.
He "didn't make a big issue" of becoming chairman, believing he didn't have enough support anyway, and instead struck a deal that allowed him to head the council's Fish and Wildlife Committee.
"It was just a matter of politics I am probably guilty to have fallen into," Brogiotti said. "I traded something for something."
Unanimous against Oregon
Kitzhaber's letter has found little support in the other three statehouses. Washington Gov. Gary Locke called the issue "an internal matter among council members."
Montana Gov. Judy Martz said January's bylaws change "strengthens the integrity of the council by providing more flexibility."
And in a response penned July 3, Idaho Gov. Dirk Kempthorne said he opposes an "unyielding schedule of leadership rotation" and praised the council's new freedom to elect whomever it wants "as a fail-safe mechanism to ensure a successful and productive council."
Critics point out Kitzhaber's plan would allow the chairmanship to fall into inexperienced hands if newly appointed council members were to find it was suddenly their state's turn.
Oregon now is proposing a provision that would allow a state to "opt out" of its turn so long as both of its members agree.
Still, the plan would be more rigid than the council's original rotation schedule, which it jettisoned in 1995 because members routinely bypassed it with a super-majority vote.
Bloch said Oregon wants to know soon whether the council will approve Oregon's plan. But it isn't clear what Oregon will do if the council doesn't act on its plan Wednesday.
"Maybe we'll find out about that at the meeting," Bloch said.
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