By Rich Riegel
An initiative petition for a proposed ballot measure is being circulated in our area in an effort to give guidance to how the region’s water supply is managed. If enough signatures are gathered, the proposed ballot measure would be placed before voters for approval in November.
The People’s Water Trust (PWT) initiative differs from another similar ballot measure that was proposed and failed in the May 2014 election. The other initiative would have created an additional governmental body, an independently-elected board called the Portland Public Water District.
Jonah Majure (pronounced “major”), the chief petitioner of the People’s Water Trust ballot initiative, explained the difference. Majure says PPWD would have essentially taken control of the Water Bureau from City Hall and put it on a separately-elected board of seven.
“The primary difference between our initiative and theirs is that the Water District initiative (assumed) if you replace the current elected officials with different elected officials, many of the issues folks have with the Water Bureau will be resolved.
“However,” he continued, “since our system of electoral politics is run by back-room deals and revolving doors back into the industry, we need to make systemic changes that will enshrine protecting the rights of future generations into our political process.”
Majure outlined systemic changes envisioned by the PWT.
“The People’s Water Trust is a pretty unique law,” he said, “the first of its kind, which amends the city charter and places the water and watersheds in trust for future generations of Portlanders.
“It comes from a blend of public trust doctrine and the community rights ordinances that have been passed around the country in an attempt to ban fracking and other polluting industries.”
Fracking, more formally known as hydraulic fracturing, is a process where fractures below the surface of the earth are widened by injecting chemicals and liquids at high pressure in an effort to extract oil or natural gas.
“The Trust recognizes the rights of Portlanders to clean and affordable water and the rights of our watershed ecology to exist and flourish,” Majure continued.
“The city, including City Hall, and any agents or contractors with the city, are recognized as trustees who must follow duties that put the public interest before private profit.
“The duties include sweeping reforms in city transparency and accountability that give the power of oversight to all Portlanders,” he said.
“One of the more exciting components is also a strict provision to eliminate conflicts of interest, an unfortunately common component of our local politics.”
Majure said that if any elected official accepts more than $50 in campaign contributions from a private interest, they must recuse themselves from voting on issues that could stand to benefit that interest, including awarding contracts and taxpayer subsidies.
“Basically,” he said, “the People’s Water Trust makes government do what we thought government already did. The city’s allegiance is to the public first and foremost.”
Majure explained the PWT initiative went through an evolution in its wording late last year.
“In December,” he said, “after receiving our initial ballot title from the city attorney and some awesome input from the community, we decided to refile with an even better draft of our initiative.”
Added language helped explain exactly what the PWT would do in a more “succinct and approachable manner,” he said.
“We also wanted to clarify that the People’s Water Trust would solidify the mission of the Bureau of Environmental Services, especially with many folks concerned about the future of the bureau itself.”
PWT began as an idea from Nick Caleb, who ran unsuccessfully against Dan Saltzman for Portland City Council Position No. 3 seat. Caleb’s concept is based on his studies of public trust doctrine under Mary Wood at the University of Oregon
The Trust was drafted “with a massive amount of community help in identifying what our needs were to pass on a positive future for our kids, grandkids and beyond,” Majure said. After a couple of months of work on the initiative to make sure it was “air tight,” he said, the initial draft was submitted in October.
“However,” Majure added, “we just like to say that the People’s Water Trust was born in a circle, under a tree, on the side of a volcano. Which it was.”
Majure said the initiative campaign’s goal is to gather approximately 50,000 signatures by the July 7 deadline for submission to Multnomah County Elections.
“To qualify we need just under 30,000 valid signatures,” he said, “but usually a large percentage of signature sheets get thrown out … during the counting process due to various errors, and we need to overshoot the official number.”