For a while there, it looked as if the backers of a measure to take control of Portland's water and sewer systems from City Hall were going to flood the airwaves with campaign ads.
But so far the water revolution has not been televised.
Measure 26-156 would create an independent water board to set rates and approve all future spending now overseen by the City Council and the city's two utilities, the bureaus of Water and Environmental Services.
Backers of the measure raised $96,689 to campaign for it once it made the ballot, and they've paid for just one radio ad. Opponents of the measure, meanwhile, have raised $257,166 and have two video ads—one on the air, the other on the Web.
The advertising uncorked by the campaigns repeats some of the spring's biggest boasts and fibs about the measure ("Talkin' Bull," WW, April 23, 2014).
The campaigns are tussling over whether the measure would halt out-of-control City Hall spending, or merely hand Portland's utilities to a board of corporate flunkies. One side says your rates would go down; the other says rates would fall only for corporations.
WW took a line-by-line sip of the commercials and got a sour taste from both sides.
Here's our analysis.
The "No" Campaign—Video
"Vote NO on 26-156"
"Water: Simple, clear, pure. But corporate polluters (1) are muddying the water with Measure 26-156. Lobbyists (2) crafted 26-156 to create a new water and sewer board they can stack with friends to lower their bills (3). But independent sources say our rates may go up (4). Corporate polluters hijacking our board? Higher rates? We shouldn't swallow that."
"Neighbors. Some are good, but some…well. But would you force neighbors to pay higher bills so you could pay less? Industry lobbyists (2) crafted a ballot measure to do just that with water and sewer rates. It creates a new board they can stack with friends to lower their water bills (3). They claim it will lower rates for us. But independent sources say there's no guarantee. And rates could go up (4)."
One of the measure's biggest supporters, German semiconductor manufacturer Siltronic, contaminated the groundwater at its Willamette riverfront site in Northwest Portland with the solvent trichloroethene during the 1980s. City records show another big contributor, Portland Bottling Co., has been repeatedly fined by the Bureau of Environmental Services for discharging pollutants into the city's sewer system.
Chief petitioner Kent Craford is a former lobbyist for the Portland Water Users Coalition, a group of big water customers.
Big industrial water users can't "stack the board." Only voters can select the new board's members. And there is no guarantee—nor any language in the measure—that industrial users will see their rates go down.
Even with a new water board, rates are likely to continue to climb—but that would not be result of the measure, as the ad implies.
The "Yes" Campaign—Radio
"Did you know that Portland has higher water rates than Phoenix, Arizona (1)? An independent lawsuit has identified $127 million in questionable expenditures, including City Hall pet projects unrelated to water and sewer systems (2). City Hall even spent $1.2 million from our water and sewer bills to fund political election campaigns (3). Now Commissioner Nick Fish wants to raise our water rates another 55 percent (4). Time to tell Fish he's out of water. On May 20, voters need to send City Hall a message by creating a public water district. A public water district will stop City Hall abuse and rein in water bills (5). It sets up an independent elected board with annual financial audits (6) and strict conflict-of-interest rules (7). No more City Hall water bill slush fund (8)."
1. TRUE BUT MISLEADING.
A standard monthly water bill in Phoenix is $6.26—well below Portland's $26.65. But Phoenix's system is subsidized by the feds, and many of the costs are passed on through property-tax bills.
The "independent" claim that $127 million was misspent is coming from many of the same people who are backing the measure. A judge has so far found $1.2 million was misspent—troubling, but an amount that has a negligible effect on rates.
The judge ruled the city misspent $547,438 on its voter-owned elections program.
No one at City Hall has proposed a 55 percent rate increase. But the five-year forecast, released by Fish's office last fall, projects rates could increase by 55 percent over the next five years. The City Council must approve any increase.
The measure does not guarantee water bill increases will stop—or even slow down—with a new water board.
That already happens. The measure prohibits independent reviews of the water board by the City Auditor—unless the board invites such a review.
The measure sets six-year waiting periods for former city employees and contractors who want to run for the board. There are no restrictions to keep allies of big water customers from running.
The City Council could no longer determine how water and sewer funds were spent.