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Our Opinion: Public gets feet wet in water ballot fight

The question of whether water and sewer services should be yanked from the control of the Portland City Council is a complicated one — and we can now count Multnomah County Circuit Judge Leslie M. Roberts as among the first objective people to grapple fully with just a few of the issues involved.

Roberts was given the chore of writing final ballot language for a proposed water district measure after the original version drafted by the Portland city attorney’s office was challenged by both sponsors and opponents. Her recent ruling in the matter is helpful in defining some of the initiative’s ambiguities and potential pitfalls.

One major issue intentionally left unresolved by Roberts concerns the boundaries for board members of a potential water district. The measure, as written by its supporters, calls for Portland Public Schools’ board boundaries to be used as the model for drawing water district board zones. The problem, of course, is that PPS is just one of six public school districts in Portland — and Roberts interpreted the measure’s language to mean that large sections of the city would be excluded from representation.

Roberts concludes that this matter must be worked out in public debate. We agree.

Similarly, the measure’s authors also wanted to prevent people who’ve been involved with overseeing the Portland Water Bureau from serving on a new water district board of directors. However, the language of the measure broadly disqualifies anyone who holds elective office from seeking a position on the water district board. That language led Roberts to state, within a four-page opinion that accompanied her ruling, that the measure unintentionally prevents board members from running for re-election.

Water district proponents dispute her interpretation, which essentially imposes a harsh, single-term limit on board members. Once again, this will become part of a public debate on the idea of a water district.

Larger questions loom, including the threshold issue of whether an independent board would do a better job of managing the city’s water and sewer functions than the City Council. Roberts’ ballot title ruling, however, offers Portlanders food for thought as they consider whether to sign initiative petitions to place this proposal on the May 2014 ballot.