City Commissioner Nick Fish will have to run two races in May 2014. And they'll both be about water.
A coalition of water activists and large ratepayers confirmed this morning it is filing a ballot initiative for the May 17, 2014 election to create an independently elected board called the Portland Public Water District, to grab political control of the city's water and sewer bureaus in an effort to lower utility rates and halt unwanted projects.
"That will be the same election where Nick Fish is running for reelection," says attorney John DiLorenzo, announcing the forming of the Portlanders for Water Reform campaign. "We intend to inextricably intertwine this campaign with his reelection campaign."
Fish immediately responded this morning by declaring the initiative a hostile takeover of local utilities by a group with vested interests.
"This is the biggest threat to the Bull Run watershed in 115 years," Fish tells WW.
DiLorenzo and lobbyist Kent Craford, who have sued the city for $126.9 million in alleged mismanagement of utility ratepayer funds, revealed their both ballot initiative language and their allies for the first time this morning at a press conference in front of the Portland Water Bureau's Interstate Renovation Project in North Portland.
The initiative transfers "the powers of the [City] Council relating to the operation, financing, protection, and enhancement of the the sewer and water system of the city" away from Portland City Hall to a seven-member board with yet-unmapped districts similar to those of the Portland Public Schools board. DiLorenzo compared its scope to the Eugene Water Board.
The initiative's backers—which Craford has mostly kept hushed until now—are unlikely allies. They include activists who oppose the covering of open-air drinking water reservoirs, fluoride opponents, and companies that pay some of the biggest water and sewer bills in the city.
But the district initiative flies in the face of the Portland Business Alliance and many of its members, whose opposition to any kind of public utility district borders on the religious.
Only two of the initiative's business backers attended the press conference: Keith Vernon, president of real-estate developer Joe Weston's American Property Management, and Tom Keenan, president of Portland Bottling, which packages sodas and energy drinks.
"Unsustainable and unnecessary, is how ratepayers view the water bureau," Keenan said. "The mayor has called us political terrorists. I call us political liberators."
Portlanders for Water Reform will begin collecting signatures in two weeks, Craford says. They need nearly 30,000 valid signatures by Jan. 17, 2014 to qualify for the ballot.
UPDATE, 11:45 am: The two elements of the Portland Public Water District likely to have the most political traction are regulations to preserve the purity and safety of the Bull Run watershed, and rules prohibiting city employees or contractors from sitting on the utility board.
"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 ballot initiative says.
Backers of the campaign offered different levels of optimism that the new district would prevent the covering of city reservoirs in compliance with federal regulations.
"This is not a silver bullet for that issue," said Craford.
But Floy Jones, who leads Friends of the Reservoirs, says the water district board would fight the feds.
"If you have real people, and not politicians," Jones said, "those people will fight. They'll fight for our water."
The initiative also locks water board seats away from anyone who worked for the city, or had a contract with the water or sewer bureaus, within six years of the election.
Craford told media the rules are specifically targeting cronyism under former City Commissioner Randy Leonard, and City Council's alleged misspending of the utility bureaus' multimillion annual budgets.
"That has proved to be too tempting for these politicians," Craford said. "And they can't resist putting their hand in the cookie jar. We can't just put on a new lid. We have to take the cookie jar away."
The initiative also says that any candidate to the board must disclose all financial relationships with the city, with one exception: being a water or sewer ratepayer.
UPDATE, 12:45 pm: City Commissioner Amanda Fritz—a longtime critic of water bureau spending—says in a statement she's opposed to the creation of a water district.
She called such a district "a new experimental body which would take control of our precious Bull Run watershed, and of our water and environmental management systems that are the envy of the nation." She says Fish should be given "a fair opportunity to improve transparency and accountability, and stabilize rates" as the commissioner in charge of both the bureaus of water and environmental services.
Her statement adds:
"Now is the time to discuss new directions under new leadership, rather than hoping for different decisions to be made by unknown, untested future Utility District politicians promoting their own particular agendas. Be careful what you wish for: creation of a Public Utility District could very well be more costly, less equitable, and less responsive to Portland’s needs."UPDATE, 2:50 pm: Commissioner Steve Novick went on the offensive this afternoon, accusing organizers of the Portland Public Water District of trying to gain an unfair advantage for big companies with big water bills.
"But a few big corporations can finance the campaigns of people running for this board. It’s no coincidence that lawyer-lobbyist John DiLorenzo is representing this new group. John’s an entertaining guy and his wife is a friend of mine, but facts are facts. DiLorenzo represents oil and drug companies, and he personally, as a lawyer, fought to overturn campaign finance limits and keep the State safe for unlimited corporate campaign contributions. He figures his clients will be able to buy and sell this low-profile board.”