A ballot measure ratepayers and water activists hope to put before voters in May would take control of Portland's water and sewer services from city council and put them in the hands of a new seven-person board. Just what the hell else it would do is an open question.

Attorneys met in a Multnomah County courtroom this morning to square off over ballot language voters will parse while deciding the measure. It was a lot of quibbling over small verbiage changes, but it got at some interesting questions. Among them:

•Would requirements voting districts be drawn "coextensive with zones established for the board of Portland Public Schools," leave out entire swaths of voters who live in other school districts?

•How much might the new district cost taxpayers—who would potentially need to fund elections that otherwise wouldn't occur?

•Could language prohibiting anyone with recent "contractual relationship" with the City of Portland from sitting on the new board actually prohibit all water ratepayers from running?

They're big questions, and some of the answers will be important as this fight moves forward. But they're not coming any time soon. Instead, Circuit Court Judge Leslie Roberts will rule only on what ballot language is appropriate, not whether the measure's wording would, as one attorney put it, "lead to an absurd result."

Let's back up.

Big industrial ratepayers tired of Portland's hefty water and sewer rates—in collusion with activists who say the city is too free with utility money—want control of those bureaus transferred to a new, volunteer board: the Portland Public Water District. They've submitted a measure, and the city attorney's office has approved it and written ballot language.

But the effort's proponents, activist Floy Jones and big ratepayer ally Kent Craford, want changes to the language. So does Vanessa Keitges, CEO of eco-roof company Columbia Green and an opponent of the measure. So that's what today's hearing was all about.

Both sides are, obviously, primarily concerned with what effect the language could have on voters—Jones and Craford say it could be confusing and inaccurate, Keitges thinks it's overly positive and inaccurate. City attorneys largely stand by their work.

More interesting than the wording, though, were the questions raised.

Craford and Jones have contended the words "coextensive with zones established for the board of Portland Public Schools," are only loose guidelines that offer an idea of the type of voting districts they'd like to establish. The language is not meant to reflect the districts be exactly the same, they say—that would leave out voters who live in other school districts [pdf].

But that argument didn't hold much sway in Roberts' courtroom this morning

"That's the only aspect of drawing up zones that is mentioned, not only once, but again as a directive to the board," Chief Deputy City Attorney Ben Walters told Roberts. "The zone boundaries don't seem to be consistent with (Portland's) overall boundaries.

"That's something that should be brought to the voters' attention."

Roberts agreed: "It's hard to figure how the city, then, is supposed to draw districts," she said. "It is a struggle for me to understand."

Christian Rogendorf Kristian Roggendorf, the attorney representing Jones and Craford agreed the language might be unhelpful. "At this point I feel we're not certain," he said. "The language of this is inartful."

Another issue raised: What new costs the water district might present taxpayers. The city's ballot language currently notes: "No cost estimate provided with measure," a sentence proponents, and Roberts, are concerned is unhelpful and unnecessary.

No cost estimates were offered in court, but Walters noted the structure of the board, which would eventually hold yearly elections, could spur new funding needs. That's because odd-year elections might require a run-off vote in November, when Portland typically doesn't have a ballot.

Lastly, attorney Steve Berman, representing Keitges, raised an interesting question about a provision aimed at preventing insiders from infiltrating the water board. The language prohibits anyone who had a "contractual relationship" with the City of Portland in the last 72 months.

"Ratepayers have a contractual relationship with the city," Berman said. "That's a real effect."

Berman said the water initiative is the first ballot measure he's dealt with in decades where backers are saying: "Do not look at the literal language of what we have written, because it will lead to an absurd result."

Craford after the meeting said he's not worried about the tough questions, and that opposing attorneys are just trying to launch political attacks on the language— "making a mountain out of a mole hill."

Interestingly, he told me before the hearing the only reason he and Jones filed an objection to the ballot language was as an insurance policy if someone else—like Keitges—tried to stop up the process with their own challenge. By having a matter before the court, Craford said, backers have a way to shepherd the measure through and start collecting signatures.

"If no one else filed a challenge, we were going to drop ours," he said.