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City water rate fight looms on 2014 ballot

Voter control of Portland water and sewer rates could be headed for the May 2014 ballot.

Critics of the City Council’s handling of water and sewer spending are scheduled to announce a petition drive to create an elected board to set the rates and budgets for the Bureau of Water and the Bureau of Environmental Services, which operates the city’s sewer system and storm water management

program.

Details will not be released until a 9 a.m. Thursday press conference. But Kent Craford, who has battled with the council in the past on rate and spending issues, says, “The ballot initiative is intended to regain control of the water and sewer utilities from City Hall and establish an independently elected board that would over the budgeting and management of them.”

Craford says the measure is also intended to serve as a referendum on Commissioner Nick Fish, who is in charge of the both bureaus and up for re-election next year.

Initiative backers need to collect slightly less than 30,000 valid signatures from Portland voters by January to place the measure on the ballot. Craford said both paid and volunteer signature gatherers will be used in the collection drive.

Although Craford is involved with two rate-related organizations, he says the petition will be led by a third group that will be identified at the press conference. Craford is director of the Portland Water Users Coalition and co-founder of Citizens for Water Accountability, Trust and Reform, which is suing the city in court about what it calls illegal water and sewer rate fund spending.

The announcement comes as community activists are fighting the council’s plans to replace the open water reservoirs in Mt. Tabor and Washington parks with underground storage tanks. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is requiring the project, which will cost hundreds of millions of dollars.

The activists say the project is not need and will unnecessarily raise water rates. They want the city to postpone action until the EPA completes an ongoing review of the requirement.

Seven people have so far been arrested at Mt. Tabor Park for attempting to post signs, set up campsites or stay past the midnight closing time. Protesters also rallied at City Hall on Wednesday.