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City water issues could create ripples in May votes

Ballot measure might set tone for City Council race


by: TRIBUNE FILE PHOTO - The open reservoir controversy, like this one at Mt. Tabor Park, continues to echo in City Hall.For Portland voters, the May 2014 primary election could be largely about water — who should set the rates, what could be put in it and whether to replace two of the City Council members who have been making those decisions.

Two water-related initiatives have been filed for the May ballot.

The most recent one would amend the City Charter to create an elected seven-person board that would control an agency created by merging the Water Bureau and the Bureau of Environmental Services, which operates the sewer system and stormwater management programs.

The other one would prohibit the city from ever putting fluoride in the water supply.

Commissioners Nick Fish and Dan Saltzman also are up for re-election next year. Fish recently was put in charge of the water and environmental services bureaus. Saltzman had been overseeing the environmental services bureau until then. Both have consistently voted for the budgets of both agencies. They also voted to fluoridate the water supply, a decision that was overturned by voters last May.

There is no guarantee that water will turn out to be all that important in the next primary, however.

For starters, supporters of both initiatives still need to collect around 30,000 valid signatures from Portland voters by January to qualify them for the ballot. Backers of the anti-fluoride initiative have not yet decided whether to proceed with it — and may start again with a different measure.

And Fish and Saltzman have not yet formally announced for re-election, although both sound like they are planning to run again.

On the other hand, last May’s fluoride vote shows the volatility of water-related issues in Portland. The council voted unanimously to fluoridate the water in September 2012. Opponents gathered enough signatures to refer the plan to the voters within a month. Ballot Measure 26-151 was defeated by a margin of 61 percent to 39 percent. The opponents won, even though they were outspent by a margin of nearly $960,000 to $294,000, according to recent campaign filings.

Defining bureaus roles

Water-related issues have roiled the City Council for years. They have included years of double-digit increases in the combined water/sewer/stormwater bill. In the past, much of the additional money was required to pay for the $1.4 billion project designed to prevent sewer overflows into the Willamette River and Columbia Slough. Now the council has begun approving smaller increases to replace the open reservoirs in Mount Tabor and Washington parks with underground storage tanks.

Similar proposals were made for safety reasons before and after the 9/11 attacks. Although citizen activists defeated each of them, the council now has approved such a plan, saying it is required by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Opponents argue the plan, estimated at more than $200 million, is not needed. They want the council to postpone it while the EPA completes a review of the rule requiring the replacement of the reservoirs.

Such ongoing controversies have been aggravated by council decisions to spend water and sewer rate funds on projects that opponents argue are not directly related to the core missions of the two bureaus. They include public toilets, remodeling a building in Gov. Tom McCall Waterfront Park for the Rose Festival Association and the purchase of a large tract of undeveloped land owned by Riverview Cemetery in Southwest Portland.

The chief supporters of the most recent initiative petition are veterans of these fights. Floy Jones is the co-founder of Friends of the Reservoirs, a grassroots group that has championed the open reservoirs for years. Kent Craford is the spokesman for the Portland Water Users Coalition, which represents large water users opposed to the high rate increases. Jones and Craford also are involved in Citizens for Water Accountability, Trust and Reform, which sued the city in Multnomah County Circuit Court because of the water and sewer spending. That lawsuit is still pending.

Jones and Craford now represent a new group, Portlanders for Water Reform, which filed the most recent initiative petition. Several supporters attended the Thursday news conference announcing the initiative. One was Keith Vernon, president of American Property Management, an apartment and redevelopment company owned by Joe Weston. Another was Tom Keenan, president of Portland Bottling, which bottles sodas and energy drinks.

The council stirred things up even more last year by unanimously agreeing to support

fluoridating the water before the first public hearing on the issue. In response, the Clean Water Portland Referendum Committee collected enough signatures to refer it to the May 2014 ballot. The council then voted 3 to 2 to move the election up a year, with commissioners Saltzman and Amanda Fritz opposing the decision. Despite the shortened campaign period, opponents easily defeated the plan.

The opponents also filed an initiative petition to prevent the council from ever fluoridating the water. They suspended collecting signatures on it during the ballot measure campaign. A steering committee now is deciding whether to proceed with the initiative or draft another one, according to one of its leaders, Kimberly Kaminski, executive director of Oregon Citizens for Clean Drinking Water.

“All options are on the table. The committee should make its decisions soon,” Kaminski says.

New leaders, new issues

A majority of the council came out against the most recent initiative immediately after it was filed. Fish called it “the most serious threat to the Bull Run Watershed in over 115 years.” Fritz said, “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.”

And Commissioner Steve Novick said, “What you’re likely to wind up with is an obscure board that nobody pays attention to except a few corporate special interests, and they’ll push that board to cut rates for corporations at the expense of residential ratepayers.”

Bob Sallinger, conservation director for the Audubon Society of Portland, also came out against it. That could ultimately be significant because many environmentalists opposed the fluoridation plan.