Since late October, Oregon Secretary of State Kate Brown's office has received at least five calls or letters of concern over statements by signature gatherers for a proposed Portland ballot measure.
At their worst, the complaints allege blatant falsehoods spread by petition circulators for the Portland Public Water District campaign—claims environmental groups that oppose the measure are behind it, for instance. At their most mundane, the complaints gripe about statements that are strictly true. That appears to be the case with the only formal complaint, filed October 24 by a former city hall staffer.
Many of the communications—obtained by the Mercury from the secretary of state's office—come after the group behind the campaign has already been admonished to ensure signature gatherers are trained to provide correct information. Kent Craford, a chief petitioner behind the measure, called the complaints a "concerted effort" to discredit the initiative "by city contractors."
Craford's measure would transfer control of the Portland Water Bureau and Bureau of Environmental Services to a new, seven-member commission, snatching the services away from Portland City Council.
According to an internal memo, Bob Sallinger—a foe of the campaign and conservation director at the Audubon Society of Portland—called state elections workers November 1 to complain about two interactions with signature gatherers.
"He encountered a petitioner on Hawthorn (sic) who he described as 'out of it,'" the memo reads. "When Sallinger asked the circulator who was backing the measure, the circulator said Friends of Trees and the Audubon Society were backing it. Sallinger asked the circulator if he was sure, and he said that he was."
Sallinger also complained a woman near Portland State University told him the Bureau of Environmental Services wouldn't be affected by the measure. The memo notes:
Those complaints weren't made formally, so probably won't spark an investigation. But if true, they might constitute a breach of ORS 260.555, which prohibits "knowingly" false statements by signature gatherers. Breaking the law is potentially a class C felony, but secretary of state spokesman Tony Green said today the office would investigate complaints as civil violations.
But the allegations were swatted away by Craford. "Clearly, Bob's got a dog in this fight," he said. "The question is: Why is Bob seeking out and quizzing these poor people?"
Update, 9:47 pm: Craford writes to reiterate the Audubon Society—and other environmental organizations in town—have contracted with the Bureau of Environmental Services in the past. According to a report from the Portland Tribune, Audubon is receiving around $43,300 to carry out a bird count in the city.
Update, 9:18 am, Wednesday:Now Sallinger writes to point out factual problems with the Tribune report, and to clarify the terms of the money Audubon is getting from BES. He says the contract is for "up to" $43, 290, that it runs from July 2010 to June 2016, and that it involves bird counts throughout the city. He also says Audubon is donating more hours under the project than it is being paid for— 1,847 volunteer hours versus 1,677 paid hours.
Original post: Sallinger's not the only one complaining. Another man called in on November 1 to report a petitioner on Hawthorne "told him the petition was to lower his water rates."
And the same day, Debbie Aiona, who works with the League of Women Voters, sent an email complaining a signature gatherer near Rose City Park claimed the measure "would stop the use of Bull Run water by a private corporation interested in supplying a water bottling plant."
That allegation jibes with an earlier complaint Friends of Trees Deputy Director Brighton West sent on October 20 claiming a signature gatherer had incorrectly claimed the petition would stop Nestlé from privatizing the city's water supply.
That email spurred elections division specialist Jennifer Hertel to warn the campaign to "ensure that any person or organization involved with the circulation of the petition is aware" of the law.
And it appears there may be a new complaint not shared by the secretary of state's office. Craford said he was alerted yesterday to a sixth complaint. Green, the secretary of state spokesman, could not confirm this evening.
Signature gathering for the water district measure is being handled by Encore Political Services, run by Hiram Asmuth, a local activist who helped with this year's anti-fluoride campaign.
"Every communication I get, I've been sharing with Hiram immediately," Craford said. "I'm totally confident that his direction to the canvassers is in keeping with our expectations and high standards."
The petitioner painted the complaints as an effort to discredit the measure by people with ties to city money.
"There's a very concerted effort against this by city contractors that has not been reported," Craford said. "Why are these people complaining in the first place?"
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