By collecting enough signatures to force Portland’s fluoridation plan to the May 2014 ballot, a group called Clean Water Portland has guaranteed many months of vigorous debate. Portland residents should be happy about this.
Clean Water Portland may be completely wrong about fluoridation, but its push for a public vote is exactly what’s supposed to happen in such cases. This is government that works.
Portland City Council voted unanimously in September to fluoridate the city’s water over the strenuous objections of people who wanted commissioners to put fluoridation to a vote. Commissioners didn’t have to comply, of course, and they were right not to. Fluoridation is widespread, safe and effective. And, besides, making decisions like this is what people elect them to do.
But the law provides a safety valve for citizens who believe their elected representatives have gone off the rails. The aggrieved have to expend some effort to force a public vote, but that’s no impediment as long as enough people agree with them. That’s the case here, just as it was in Clackamas County earlier this year following the county’s commitment to spend millions on light rail.
The result of Clean Water Portland’s signature-gathering effort will be messy and noisy, and whichever way the vote goes a whole lot of people in Portland are going to end up angry. But fluoride opponents deserve credit for doing the hard work needed to force a vote, and no one should take for granted the ability of citizens to shape policy so directly.
That’s true at the state level as well, where the citizen initiative has been demonized unfairly as a tool of ideologues and special interests who seek to muck up the noble work of legislators. The system isn’t perfect, of course, and it produces regrettable measures, some of which even pass. But the system also allows citizens to force changes that lawmakers, prone to stasis and vulnerable to special interests themselves, simply won’t.
Washington voters recently privatized liquor sales, dragging the state out of the Prohibition era. On Tuesday, they legalized the recreational use of marijuana. Both initiatives have increased pressure on Oregon lawmakers to consider similar legislation here. If they fail to act, they know voters might do it themselves.
The same point applies to same-sex marriage. Momentum to allow it in Oregon is building, thanks to Washington’s vote on a gay marriage referendum Tuesday. But even sympathetic legislative leaders here have little interest in putting the question on the ballot themselves. If Oregon didn’t allow citizen initiatives, lawmakers might be more willing to act, but you never know. Just be glad citizens have the choice.
We look forward to debating fluoride opponents for the next year and a half. But for the moment, we’ll simply be grateful for a system that allows citizens to hold their elected representatives accountable and force changes that lawmakers would not otherwise consider.