MAY'S MOST-CONTENTIOUS vote may be a decision whether Portland's water and environmental services bureaus should stay in the hands of city hall or fall under control of a new board.

And with the so-called Portland Public Water District officially certified for the ballot earlier this month, the measure's many opponents—led, according to sources, by Mayor Charlie Hales—are finally sharpening their knives for a fight.

Labor unions, environmental groups, neighborhood associations, and city commissioners have all come out against the water district proposal. The Portland Business Alliance, on Tuesday, February 11, chimed in with its own concerns about the measure, but said it won't take an official stance.

Union members fear for their jobs, since there's been talk of layoffs. Environmentalists call the proposal a ploy to erode the city's environmental programs. Hales told Willamette Week the proposal is an "act of political terrorism."

But organized opposition has so far been scarce. That's about to change—with the leadership apparently coming from city hall.

A formal campaign is in the works, sources say, with two meetings held to date, and a short list of campaign managers drawn up. Many people are hesitant to offer specifics, but sources in city hall say Hales is the effort's nucleus and will be its strongest champion in city government.

"This is one of his priorities," confirms Hales' spokesman, Dana Haynes. "He's taking time away from the office to make telephone calls and meet with people while he's not here."

Also involved in talks is Commissioner Nick Fish, who oversees the Portland Bureau of Environmental Services and Portland Water Bureau. He has been a consistent target of the water district campaign since its launch last summer ["Squirt Guns at Dawn," News, July 24].

Fish wouldn't confirm that he'd participated in meetings, or other details surrounding the campaign, other than to say: "I have not determined what my role would be. My primary focus is leadership of the two utilities."

(Fish is also ramping up a re-election campaign, and currently faces two challengers on the May 20 primary ballot.)

The controversial measure would create a seven-member elected board to run both utility bureaus. Its proponents say the board would transcend alleged cronyism in city hall and determine the city's utility rates and infrastructure projects with a clearer eye. Opponents point out that the measure's backing comes almost solely from industrial water users and property management firms—not the grassroots coalition some have claimed—and say it's a bid to lower commercial water rates at the expense of residential customers.

When an opposition campaign is formally rolled out, donors are ready.

"The truth is I'm kind of waiting around to be able to see where to send out money," says Joe Baessler, political director for the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) Council 75, which represents hundreds of water bureau staffers.

The union has estimated the proposal could cost 250 jobs for its members, according to Mark Gipson, president of AFSCME Local 189.

The Laborers' International Union of North America (LiUNA) Local 483, which represents more than 100 environmental services bureau employees, also opposes the measure, says President Scott Gibson.

But it's an awkward time for labor to team up with city hall. Both AFSCME and LiUNA are members of the District Council of Trade Unions, which is in the midst of a contentious contract battle with the city.

"I've got members that are ticked off at the city over these contract issues," Gipson says. "These are the same people I need to come out to fight for their own jobs."

Then there are groups like the Audubon Society of Portland and Friends of Trees, some of whom met with Baessler late last year to strategize.

"Frankly, I wish there was a formal campaign going four or five months ago," says Bob Sallinger, conservation director for the local Audubon chapter and one of the measure's fiercest opponents. "I think folks were waiting to see if it would make the ballot."