Environmental Activists Split From Water District Campaign, Launch Second Ballot Initiative

UPDATE: New "public trust" would bar fluoridation, require fight against underground reservoirs.

RESERVOIR NO. 5: On Mount Tabor.

UPDATE, 10:15 am Monday:

A look at the language of the new ballot initiative shows the "People's Water Trust" would amend city code to mandate a fight against federal regulations on burying open-air reservoirs.

It also requires city officials to refer to voters any proposal to add new chemicals to the water supply—prohibiting another secret attempt at fluoridation.

The proposed rules include strict conflict-of-interest provisions reported by WW Sunday, including barring any official who receives more than $50 in campaign contributions from a water contractor or rate-paying company from taking part in any "deliberations, decisions or, or votes" on issues affecting the donor.

The trust bans the use of emergency ordinances to fund projects. It requires competitive bidding on all contracts. And it tells the city to test for radon in all city water sources—a concern for water activists who believe the gas gathers in underground tanks.

"There's a little something for everybody involved," says Seth Woolley, the Green Party activist who helped draft the ballot initiative.

The Cascadian Public Trust Initiative also launched its website overnight. It is expected to file its initiative with the city auditor's office today. 

ORIGINAL POST, 3:33 pm Sunday:

The campaign to to remove control of water from City Hall has turned into two campaigns.

A group of environmental activists associated with Occupy Mount Tabor have splintered from the businesses backing a Portland Public Water District ballot initiative—and are launching a second, separate ballot initiative aimed for November 2014.

The activists, led by local organic farmer Jonah Majure, will file their initiative with the City Auditor on Monday.

The new campaign is called the Cascadian Public Trust Initiative. It would amend Portland city code to create a public water trust: essentially tightening the rules on what decisions elected officials and Portland Water Bureau staff can make without asking voters.

"We really need something that addresses the problems with accountability, transparency and the public perception around water," says Seth Woolley, a Green Party activist who helped write the new initiative. "The water district would essentially go backward, in my view."

Woolley says the new rules—a set of "duties and oversight mechanisms," according to the campaign language—would equally bind either City Hall or the Public Water District board, depending on whether the May 2014 water district initiative passes.

Among the rules: a requirement that any elected officials receiving more than $50 in campaign donations from a water contractor or ratepayer must recuse themselves from votes on issues affecting those donors.

"The most important thing, in my opinion, is it has conflict of interest provisions that essentially codify campaign finance reform," says Woolley.

The new ballot initiative also tears apart the coalition challenging City Hall's decisions around public utilities.

Water activists irate about City Hall's fluoridation efforts and concession to drain open-air reservoirs joined forces this summer with businesses bridling at increased water rates.

But that partnership has been frayed by revelations about the business owners backing the district—including Portland Bottling owner Harry Merlo—and activists' concerns the new board might eviscerate the Bureau of Environmental Services.

Dissent grew in the wake of the Camp Cascadia occupation of Mount Tabor this summer—a protest of City Hall's replacement of Portland's open-air reservoirs with underground tanks. Activists including Woolley and Occupy Portland organizers Nicholas Ivan Caleb and Jessie Sponberg expressed reservations about the water district plan.

"I'm enthusiastic there's an alternative," says Sponberg, saying the water district could be controlled by large utility ratepayers who have fought rate hikes, including Siltronic and the Hilton Portland & Executive Tower.

"I don't think Occupy Mount Tabor was created to give Paris Hilton's family a discount on their water rates," Sponberg adds.

Portlanders for Water Reform—the campaign led by lobbyist Kent Craford and reservoir activist Floy Jones—is already gathering signatures (and a warning from the state).

If the backers of both ballot initiatives each gather the 30,000 signatures needed to go to voters, it will make three campaigns centered around water next year: City Commissioner Nick Fish, who oversees the water and sewer bureaus, is running for reelection in May.

WWeek 2015

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