A measure water activists and angry ratepayers want to see on next year's May ballot would snatch control of water and sewer service from the city, creating a separate council that dictates what customers pay and how that money's spent.
But the change would have no effect on the city's controversial decision to follow a federal rule and do away with Portland's open-air reservoirs. And ratepayer savings under the new district, supporters say, could come at the cost of city jobs.
The new details on the Portland Public Water District were made clear at a press conference this morning, across the street from where the city's building a new North Portland headquarters for the Portland Water Bureau.
Longtime sewer/water service critics Floy Jones and Kent Craford headed up the event, with attorney John DiLorenzo filling in details.
"No one has ever done it before," DiLorenzo told me after the conference. "Not in the state anyway."
The language that surrounds the shift [PDF] hadn't been submitted to city officials as of the press conference, and the group still has to form a committee with the Oregon Secretary of State's Office. Craford, director of the Portland Water Users Coalition, said the effort will be under way and collecting signatures in roughly two weeks. Supporters need about 30,000 signatures to land the initiative on the May 2014 ballot.
Among the group's grievances: water and sewer rate increases, and the city's use of ratepayer money on projects critics say have nothing to do with providing water service. They say a seven-person commission, with members serving three year terms, would serve as a better advocate for customers.
"There's no expense the water bureau does not like," said Jones, a founding members of Friends of the Reservoirs.
DiLorenzo likened the proposed commission to a separate city council whose purview would extend only to water and sewer service.
"We're not creating a separate entity," he said. "This will become a separate department of the city."
To concerns about who'd fund the push, Craford said the group's been soliciting support from "large water customers" but welcomed support from anywhere. Contributions to the group, he took pains to point out, would all be documented through the secretary of state.
Much of the rhetoric at the news conference was aimed at decisions made while the water bureau was in the hands of former Commissioner Randy Leonard. Those included the use of ratepayer money to fund Portland Loos—a Leonard pet project—and the expenditure of $1.6 million in water bureau money, later reimbursed amid pressure, to fund new Rose Festival headquarters. But it was Commissioner Nick Fish, who's run the bureau since June, who bore the brunt of the petition group's attention.
"It takes three votes," Craford said, referring to a majority required to push policy through Portland City Council.
He pointed out that, if the petition effort succeeds, it would come up for a vote on the same ballot as a re-election effort by Fish.
"He's going to have to make very clear whether he embraces the abuses," Craford said. He called comments by Fish, reported yesterday by the Mercury, "little more than hollow bromides from an East Cost carpetbagger politician who never met a rate increase he didn't like."
UPDATE, 12:30 pm:
Reaction out of city hall, as expected, is negative.
Fish calls the proposal a "hostile takeover" (though, yes, it would be sanctioned by voters).
"How does this proposal increase accountability and transparency?" he said. "It takes control of our water and sewer system and gives it to an unaccountable body"
Fish said both commissioners Amanda Fritz and Steve Novick would be releasing statements critical of the petition, and that he's heard opposition from business and environmental interests. I've been trying to get a comment from Mayor Charlie Hales' office on the effort since yesterday. Still no dice.
"My worst fear is it’s big companies, including big polluters, using a coalition of convenience to sell to the public a takeover of the Bull Run watershed in order to drive down rates for corporate ratepayers," Fish told me yesterday. "The only way you can do significant rate relief in a fixed-cost system is to shift the cost."
The petition group also highlighted the city's decision last month to acquiesce, after years of fighting, to a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency rule requiring Portland to do away with its open-air drinking water reservoirs. Craford, though, said their proposed new commission would have no effect on that process.
"This is not a silver bullet for that issue," he said.
When I asked Jones and Craford how they thought a new board would create rate decreases, Jones said the water bureau is a bloated bureaucracy, and that trimming employees there and in the Bureau of Environmental Services would be key.
Update, 1:32 pm:
A statement released by Fritz early this afternoon outlines in great detail her opposition to the proposed district.
"Slicing off the utilities to be ruled by yet another independent government is unlikely to improve efficiency, or the long term public good," the statement says. "Adding another bureaucracy would be costly and inefficient."
Fritz notes she's opposed water rate increases for the past three years, and wouldn't sign off on this year's BES budget. Still, she says:
"I do not support the creation of a new experimental body which would take control of our precious Bull Run watershed, and of our water and environmental management systems that are the envy of the nation. A Utility District would disconnect vital public services from other interconnected functions of the City, such as Parks management, Urban Forestry, assistance to struggling residents, regulatory compliance, and making sure taxes and fees for businesses and homeowners are apportioned appropriately."
Update, 2:31 pm:
And the statements of derision keep pouring in, both Commissioner Steve Novick and Audubon Society of Portland Conservation Director Bob Sallinger just sent out releases.
“What you’re likely to wind up with is an obscure board that nobody pays attention to except a few corporate special interests, and they’ll push that board to cut rates for corporations at the expense of residential ratepayers,” Novick says. He continues: "It’s no coincidence that lawyer-lobbyist John DiLorenzo is representing this new group...DiLorenzo represents oil and drug companies, and he personally, as a lawyer, fought to overturn campaign finance limits and keep the State safe for unlimited corporate campaign contributions. He figures his clients will be able to buy and sell this low-profile board.”
Sallinger calls the initiative a "Trojan horse."
"This effort is backed by the industrial Water Users Coalition, a lobbying group supported by some of Portland's biggest and wealthiest industrial interests," he writes. "It is disappointing that in their laudable efforts to protect Portland's reservoirs (something Audubon has supported), some reservoir advocates have aligned themselves with some of Portland's least civic-minded industries which seek to roll back years of environmental progress in Portland."