• Kate Summer

In Portland, when water's involved, things are seldom cut and dried.

Activists pushing new oversight of the Portland Water Bureau say the city did an imperfect shoddy job crafting language that would explain their effort to voters.

A member of the group, the Cascadian Water Trust Initiative, has formally challenged the city's ballot verbiage in court. Nicholas Caleb, a law school grad and instructor at Concordia College, filed the appeal today, claiming the title is biased, sloppy and unspecific.

"Highly legally significant content is underemphasized or described non-specifically while provisions that could be succinctly listed are overemphasized and appear redundantly in the text," Caleb writes in the seven page petition [pdf]. "Additionally, some terms are misleading."

Aimed at the November 2014 election, the trust effort is something of a water activist's wish list. It would force a public vote before chemicals like fluoride are added to the water supply, create stringent public records requirement rules for the water bureau, and force the city to do all it can to stave off closing Portland's open-air water reservoirs in Mount Tabor and Washington parks.

It would also formalize a "public trust" of the water system, creating leverage for citizens to sue for perceived mismanagement.

Caleb says the ballot language proposed by the city attorney's office doesn't capture enough of those subtleties. And he contend's the repeated use of "imposes" paints the proposal in a negative light.

"The word 'Imposes' is a loaded term and creates the impression that the City perceives Petition ID PDX 6 as an unwelcome force burdening City officials," Caleb writes. "The word is biased and is thus unfair."

If Caleb had his druthers, the ballot would read like this:


"It's mostly just trying to get the City to emphasize portions that I feel are most important," Caleb tells the Mercury.

Recent history's shown ballot title challenges can result in significant judicial facelifts. When a group trying to create a new "public water district" fought the city's interpretation of its proposal last month, the judge assigned to the case inserted new language laying bare some of the measure's ambiguities.