Portland elections struggle to compete with spring fever, especially in years lacking presidential glamour. Only about 100,000 Portlanders voted in May 2010’s local primary—less than half the turnout for the Obama-riffic ’12 general. That 2010 ballot featured city council races so uncompetitive the tallies could be from Putin’s Russia, and even many of the diligent citizens who filled out ballots didn’t bother to vote for city auditor. (Can you blame them?)

This year’s May 20 primary, however, poses a question of existential importance. For over a century, the city council has controlled our water supply through Portland’s unusual commission system, with the mayor picking a single council member to oversee the bureau. Now a ballot measure—pushed by activists, backed by very thirsty corporations—would create an independently elected volunteer board to govern water and (less glamorous, equally essential) sewer services. 

If it sounds a little dull, consider that the move would radically overhaul Portland’s system of government. Or consider money and power.

“Fifty thousand votes could decide the fate of $20 billion in public infrastructure,” says Nick Fish, the current commissioner overseeing water and sewer. Beyond shifting control of almost $427 million in annual utility revenues, the measure would trim city council’s clout significantly. Mayor Charlie Hales called the idea “political terrorism” and “sabotage.” 

The anti-measure campaign—a roll call of Portland’s liberal establishment, heavy on environmental organizations and labor unions—calls itself “Stop the Bull Run Takeover,” invoking the Mount Hood reservoir that feeds (and symbolizes) the city’s water system. Posters at the Audubon Center added an even more ominous adjective, branding the proposal a “corporate takeover.” Early campaign rhetoric describes the measure as “underpinned by a strong anti-environment agenda.”

And the pro-measure campaign does shape up as one of Portland’s stranger political alliances, starting with its leaders. Floy Jones, a 58-year-old retiree and opponent of covering Mount Tabor’s open-air reservoirs, is a lifelong Democrat and quintessential Portland activist. Kent Craford, a 38-year-old entrepreneur, worked for 2010 GOP gubernatorial candidate Chris Dudley and for Slade Gordon, a Reaganite US senator. In person, the pair suggests Bella Abzug teaming up with an adult Alex P. Keaton. 

They argue the city has mismanaged the bureaus, driven up rates (which will rise 5 percent this year, as they did last year), and channeled revenues to misguided projects. “It’s a lot of money,” Craford says. “It’s going into someone’s pockets.”

All the same, the measure hardly counts as a populist uprising: the drive to qualify it for the ballot drew almost all its funding from major water users. The computer chip manufacturer Siltronic and Portland Bottling pumped  in multiple five-digit donations. Big local landlords like American Property Management and Commerce Properties ponied up; so has the Hilton hotel chain. “Takeover” rhetoric amplifies the legitimate question of what these players want.

“What’s the goal?” Fish asks. “Who’s going to run our water and sewer system if this succeeds?” Fish and other opponents warn that an obscure board, chosen in equally low-profile elections, could easily become a tool for major corporate water users to slash environmental programs and shift costs to residential customers.

The problem for advocates of the status quo is that the city has screwed up a time or two. Jones and Craford are also working with plaintiffs in a lawsuit that challenges city spending of utility dollars. In a preliminary ruling, a judge decided that the city did misuse funds to pay for publicly financed elections and the Portland Loo, a design for public toilets. The Loo is a legacy of former commissioner Randy Leonard, under whom the bureau built parks and funded a $700,000 water-efficient house, which the city recently sold at a substantial loss. (John DiLorenzo, one of Portland’s most aggressive conservative lawyer-lobbyists, represents the alliance that’s suing the city. Separately, the ballot campaign has paid DiLorenzo’s firm, Davis Wright Tremaine, $26,219 to write the measure’s text and for other services.)

The suit could ultimately require the city to pay back millions, but either way voters can expect many reminders of the Loo, the “Water House,” Leonard’s robust interpretation of his duties, and other water-related controversies before May 20. 

“There’s been dysfunctional management for years, and there always will be, as long as you have one person as czar in charge,” Craford says. 

At stake is not merely bureaucratic turf, but a big piece of Portland’s soul. “The story of municipal utilities is crucial, even heroic,” says Rowan Schmidt, a project leader for a Tacoma-based environmental economics firm. “There are many models, but whatever one is used helps create a city’s identity.”

As 2013’s battle over fluoridation showed, Portlanders don’t like messing with their water. That might work in favor of city council. Then again, the council threw its political weight behind fluoride—and lost by 22 percentage points.