Signature gatherers behind an effort to create a new water and sewer district have received their first formal complaint—a potentially serious allegation that, if deemed true, could result in felony charges.

Oregon Secretary of State Kate Brown's office received a written accusation on October 24—claims a Lloyd District petitioner offered false information about what the proposed Portland Public Water District would accomplish.

"The petitioner told me that the petition supports a ballot measure that would prevent the privatization of the Bull Run system," writes the complainant, whose name the secretary of states office withheld because of a potential criminal investigation. "It was clear to me that the petitioner had been trained to use this knowingly false statement."

Reading over the water district measure, though, the alleged statements don't seem necessarily misleading—just woefully incomplete. At its core, the measure creates a seven-member elected board that would assume control of the Portland Water Bureau and Bureau of Environmental Services. There are still some big questions about whether the measure's language could have unintended consequences.

But it also plainly states: "The district may not regionalize or privatize water or sewer service," and "the district may not adopt regulations for the Bull Run Watershed that are less protective or enhancing of water quality than the regulations in place on July 1, 2013."

The complaint will send secretary of state investigators to work determining if a crime was committed, spokesman Tony Green said. But that's no easy feat where local races are concerned. For statewide petitions, Green said, the secretary of state collects the names and photos of everyone circulating a petition. That's not the case with local initiatives, so it might be hard to even locate the gatherer who uttered the allegedly illegal exhortation.

The complainant provided a picture of the man, but a copy sent to the Mercury is essentially a pixelated blur wearing sunglasses.

"If we can’t find who that person is, we can’t do anything," Green said.

Calls and messages to chief petitioners Kent Craford and Floy Jones haven't been returned, but Green said investigators are working with the group.

The letter is the measure's first formal complaint, but not the first protestation that's made its way to the secretary of state's office. Days before the complaint was filed, Friends of Trees Deputy Director Brighton West sent an email claiming a signature gatherer had incorrectly claimed the petition would stop Nestlé from privatizing the city's water supply.

According to Green, a separate caller phoned Brown's office last week to complain about a signature gatherer referencing Nestlé.

As far as the formal complaint goes, if the signature gatherer's identity is discovered and it's determined he knowingly made a false statement, he could be prosecuted under ORS 260.555, which says:

No person attempting to obtain signatures on, or causing to be circulated, an initiative, referendum or recall petition, shall knowingly make any false statement regarding the contents, meaning or effect of the petition to any person who signs it, attempts to sign it, is requested to sign it or requests information concerning it.

Violation of the law is a class C felony.

Update, 5:45 pm: Turns out the complaint was filed by Marshall Runkel, who once upon a time was a staffer for former City Commissioner Erik Sten.

Runkel, who these days works for Clean Energy Works Oregon, tells the Mercury the signature gatherer's spiel might have been literally true, but that the intent was to mislead.

"The City of Portland, as far as I know, has never considered selling the water system to a private entity," Runkel says. "I understand that legally what they might be saying could be technically true. It still seems like an unsavory practice, even if it isn’t a felony."

Meanwhile, the group backing the measure says Runkel's complaint amounts to harassment. In a letter [pdf] to Jennifer Hertel, a compliance specialist at Brown's office, Jones and Craford call Runkel a "consummate City Hall insider clearly engaged in a campaign to prevent ballot access for the PPWD initiative."

"We hereby lodge a formal complaint against Mr. Marshall Runkel for harassment of petitioners and attempted obstruction of ballot access," the letter says, also request Runkel be "officially restrained" from speaking with signature gatherers for the effort.

Craford tells the Mercury his group is researching how to seek censure against Runkel.

"We're investigating right now," he says. "We're not gonna take it any more. We are definitely going to push back."