The ballot measure campaign to wrest control of Portland’s water and sewer bureaus away from City Hall is now living under the shadow of Big Chocolate.
The Oregon Elections Division has received a complaint that signature gatherers with Portlanders for Water Reform are falsely claiming the petition would stop Nestle Corp. from taking over the city’s water supply.
The measure would create an independent, publicly elected commission to oversee Portland’s sewer and water systems. It's backed by businesses who want to halt city spending of ratepayer dollars, and activists who object to the city replacing its open-air reservoirs with underground tanks.
In an Oct. 20 complaint, Portland resident Brighton West says he was approached on Southeast Hawthorne Boulevard and asked to sign a petition to stop Nestle from privatizing Portland’s water supply.
“The petition gatherer told us his boss told them to talk about Nestle,” West wrote. “However, it seems like Nestle has nothing to do with this petition.”
The Swiss-based corporation, which sells Deer Park and Poland Spring bottled water, has for years sought to place a bottling plant in the Columbia River Gorge, sparking protests.
The Nestle threat sounds like an extension of a core argument made by the water rebels: that the Water Bureau's big spending places utilities in such dangerous debt it will eventually be forced to sell them.
"Today, Portland’s two utilities are deeply in debt to Wall Street bond holders," Portlanders for Water Reform writes on its website. "Other American cities deeply in debt are under increasing pressure to sell assets, especially revenue-producing assets like utilities."
An elections official told West she would send Portlanders for Water Reform a warning.
“We just found out about it yesterday,” says Kent Craford, co-petitioner for the campaign, “and we’re looking into it.”
UPDATE, 3 pm: Brighton West, who sent the complaint to Oregon Elections, is deputy director of Friends of Trees. The tree-planting nonprofit's city work includes a $685,552 ongoing contract with the Bureau of Environmental Services.
He's also a filmmaker whose work includes a commercial for anti-fluoridation group Clean Water Portland.
West tells WW he's opposed to the water district initiative, because he's had good experiences working with the sewer bureau on tree planting. He filed the complaint because he felt the signature gatherer was misleading environmentally-minded voters.
"It's pretty common to hear somebody on Hawthorne say, 'Stop Nestle in the Gorge,'" West says. "Hawthorne is the place you go if you have liberal issues. But that wasn't what this was about."