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Squirt Guns at Dawn

A New Challenger Emerges in the City's Water Wars

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FOR THE SECOND May running, it seems Portlanders in 2014 could be forced to wade through the vigorous, often-contradictory claims that come with water policy in this town.

A coalition of business owners and water activists on Thursday, July 18, formally unveiled what had been speculated on for months: a petition effort to snatch Portland's water and sewer systems from city council's control, and put them in the hands of a new board, the "Portland Public Water District."

It's an unprecedented effort in the state. Unsurprisingly, it's also spurring a lot of uneasy questions about transparency, who should have oversight over Portland's water supply, and the will of big business.

And, already, some hiccups have emerged. After the Mercury on Tuesday, July 23, pointed out some fairly serious typos in proposed charter amendments submitted to the city last week, supporters conceded they may have to file new, corrected paperwork.

But the initiative has city hall worried. And, if it's deemed acceptable by the city attorney and city auditor, it could find a receptive audience in Portlanders wary of high water and sewer rates.

"I'm totally confident we'll have the resources we need to get this thing on the ballot," says Kent Craford, a leader of the effort and longtime advocate for lower water rates for industrial ratepayers. "The calls I've been getting, just from people out of the blue. It's crazy."

This past May it was the specter/promise of fluoridation that called voters to arms. Next year, it could be retired City Commissioner Randy Leonard.

A large part of their rationale, petitioners say, is a series of unpardonable breaches of the public trust committed by Leonard during his tenure atop the Portland Water Bureau. They'll be familiar to anyone who's followed the news: Leonard steered something like $4 million in ratepayer money to things like a new Rose Festival headquarters and a model home promoting water conservation—projects only tangentially, if at all, related to delivering customers potable, delicious water.

Craford and others filed a lawsuit in 2011 over the expenses.

"There's no expense that the water bureau does not like," says Floy Jones, a founding member of Friends of the Reservoirs and leader of the petition effort. "We've requested, pleaded, demanded."

The problem, of course, is that Leonard's been retired from public office for almost eight months now. So the would-be petitioners are gunning for the man tapped in June to take his place atop the city's publicly owned utilities. They're coming after Commissioner Nick Fish.

Fish—who until being tasked with water and sewer service had relished his work with housing and parks—faces a potential primary battle for his seat next May, the same time the new utility district could come up for a vote.

In the run-up to the election, Craford and allies—among them Jones and the heads of several Portland businesses—are attempting to paint the commissioner as an East Coast carpetbagger (he hails from New York state) drunk on the excesses of ratepayer dollars.

"He's going to have to make it very clear whether he embraces the abuses," Craford says. Meanwhile, Commissioners Amanda Fritz (who's recently opposed sewer and water rate hikes) and Dan Saltzman (who actually led the sewers bureau before Fish) have been largely left out of Craford's rhetoric.

Fish and a number of his city hall cohorts have come out in force against the group's proposal.

"This looks to me like the greatest threat to the Bull Run Watershed in the last 115 years," Fish says. "It takes control of our water and sewer system and gives it to an unaccountable body."

Commissioner Steve Novick piled on. "The general public doesn't have time to keep track of dozens of elected officials," Novick said in a statement released on July 18. "But a few big corporations can finance the campaigns of people running for this board."

Fritz opposes the proposal, too. So does the Audubon Society of Portland, which sees it as an attempt by industrial interests to control the city's water and gut environmental programs that make up a significant piece of the bureau of environmental services' work. Notably absent from the discussion? Mayor Charlie Hales, who hadn't released a statement on the petition by press time, despite repeated requests for comment.

The proposal amends the city charter to create a seven-member board that would become an arm of the city, answerable to no one but the electorate. The unpaid members would serve three-year terms, and their only task would be administering Portland's water and sewer systems.

There are no precedents in Oregon for such a system, says John DiLorenzo, a lawyer and lobbyist representing the cause. As such, water policy wonks have questions about the proposal.

Why, for instance, would board members be subject to three-year terms—an unusual length that would lead to campaigns for the board every year, even in little-watched off-year elections?

"We wanted there to be regular opportunities for ratepayers to weigh in," Craford says. "Give them an opportunity every year to go to the polls and send a message to the board."

But Bob Jenks, executive director of the Citizens' Utility Board of Oregon, says such a system could lead to abuse.

"It seems to me you'd rather have the elections come in the busy years," says Jenks.

The effort is still young and uncertain.

Petitioners have enlisted the help of fundraiser Tiffany Stark Grabenhorst—popular among high-powered Republicans in the state. As the Mercury first reported, Grabenhorst has been soliciting contributions. But the group hasn't yet set up a political action committee, so can't accept cash.

Craford and DiLorenzo are eagerly awaiting city rulings on whether their charter amendment satisfies legal requirements. Even if those decisions come out in petitioners' favor, though, they'll likely have to file again.

That's because the paperwork contains several typos, mistakenly referring to the proposed Portland Public Water District as the "Portland Public Utility Board." If the language were approved for a vote, those typos could find their way into the city charter, says City Elections Officer Deborah Scroggin. That, in turn, could lead to confusion down the line.

"The question is whether a court would say: 'Well, we know what the voters intended,'" says DiLorenzo. "We could just re-file. Frankly, the delay would be about a week."

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