PORTLAND, Oregon — A coalition of ratepayer advocates and water-purity activists filed an initiative petition Thursday to take the management of Portland’s water and sewers from the City Council.
If approved by voters, an elected board of seven unpaid representatives would oversee the city’s water, sewer and storm-water systems.
What role would be left for Mayor Charlie Hales and the four city commissioners? “None,” said Kent Craford, one of the chief petitioners. “That’s the point. We’re removing professional politicians from any oversight or involvement into Portland’s water and sewer system.”
Advocates must collect almost 30,000 valid signatures to get the initiative on the May ballot.
Water and sewer rates have each jumped by 160 percent since 2000, and advocates assign partial blame to expensive failures — like $30 million lost on a failed billing system — and politicians dipping into Water Bureau funds to pay for projects unrelated to water-and-sewer service, such as downtown public bathrooms.
“We’re really confident that ratepayers are ticked, and they’re ready to do something about it,” said Craford, who is also the director of the Portland Water Users Coalition, which includes Portland businesses that use lots of water.
Supporters of cheaper rates are joined in the initiative by activists who thwarted the city’s effort to put fluoride in the drinking water and are upset by the city’s recent decision to stop fighting a federal mandate to cover open reservoirs.
City Commissioner Amanda Fritz, the only member of City Council who wants to keep battling on the reservoir issue, said in a statement that she opposes the proposed Portland Public Water District, even though she has voted against rate increases the past three years.
“Portlanders may assume I’d favor the proposed Utility District,” she said. “Nothing could be further from the truth. I do not support the creation of 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.”
Under Portland’s commission form of government, the mayor and four city commissioners share executive branch duties, with each running at least one city bureau. Commissioner Nick Fish took over the Water Bureau last month, and Fritz said he deserves a “fair opportunity” to stabilize rates and improve accountability.
Fish said he’s confident voters will see the initiative as a “misguided effort” when its merits are debated in the spring.
“We have the best drinking water of any city in America, and for 115 years we’ve been good stewards of the Bull Run watershed,” he said. “What’s the problem we’re trying to fix? Is it a disagreement with the EPA over reservoirs? Well, occupy the EPA, but why create a new layer of government.”