After a controversial vote, Portland city leaders have directed the Water Bureau to build a fluoridation plant, scheduled to come online in 2014. April Baer reports the vote paves the way for months of political activity for supporters and opponents.
Commissioner Amanda Fritz delivered a ten-minute speech before her vote. She’s facing a competitive re-election fight this year, and she says she knew that no matter how she voted, a lot of Portlanders would be angry with her.
Fritz says one of the first questions she had was why the city wouldn’t fund a fluoride tablet program for schools. She remembers her kids getting fluoride in schools when when they were young.
“The answer is that the fluoride tablet approach hasn’t worked. Kids don’t get it on the weekend, they don’t get it on the holidays, and they don’t even get it consistently in schools. We’ve tried it. It hasn’t resolved the dental health problems. We can’t continue to use the same approaches that have failed the past and expect different outcomes. We’re being asked to try a different approach,” Fritz said.
Fritz says the debate did not follow good public process, with key council votes lined up early on. But she also found the majority of evidence concludes fluoride is helpful– not harmful– in municipal water systems. Council’s vote was unanimous in favor of fluoridation.
Opponents were a vocal presence at the meeting. They interrupted council members repeatedly with shouts, banners, and hissing. Mayor Sam Adams, ordered several people removed from council chambers.
After the meeting, Kim Kaminski with Clean Water Portland said the process had not offered enough opportunities for fluoride opponents to be heard. She was not satisfied with the six-hour work session held last week, where opponents and supporters testified.
“This has been a behind-closed-doors process. It is a violation of democracy. The public was not informed. We were not given an opportunity to be heard. It’s a violation of due process and the city council should be ashamed,” Kaminski said.
Clean Water Portland filed for a prospective petition for a city-wide referendum today. That means the group will have 30 days to gather signatures to get their challenge to council’s action on the ballot. If they can gather about 19,000 valid signatures, their referendum seeking to stop Council’s fluoride ordinance would be on the ballot in May of 2014. And if that happened, the ordinance would be frozen, pending that vote.
Dr. John Snyder is Dental Director for Kaiser Permanente. He supports the vote. And while he says more needs to happen to improve the region’s dental health, he still says it’s an important step.
“What a great service we’re going to be providing to our community by fluoridating the water, and reducing pain and suffering every day.The children, the elderly, the most underserved populations in the community will gain the greatest benefit from this,” Snyder said.
For now, the Portland Water Bureau will move forward with plans to build a fluoridation plant. Director David Shaff says it’ll be a nondescript metal building at the Lusted Hill operation within the Bull Run watershed. The $5 million plant, he says, won’t be complicated to build.
“It’s really a matter of getting through the permitting process. That’s not a money issue. It’s a time issue. We’re hoping we’ll get through the initial planning process by the end of the year. We’ll start working immediately getting a design started,” Shaff said.
But a lot could happen between now and the plant’s projected completion date. Commissioner Randy Leonard has directed the Water Bureau to put the project on a fast track, to go online in March 2014– well in advance of any possible city-wide vote.
But if Clean Water Portland is able to convince enough people the ordinance deserves a vote, construction would have to stop until their referendum. Signature gatherers could hit the streets as soon as Wednesday.
The current city commissioners have already fielded comments from thousands of city residents over fluoride. Portland’s municipal water customers in surrounding communities like Tualatin and West Slope have told Portland they’re unhappy the city didn’t consult with them.
Project sponsors Randy Leonard and Mayor Sam Adams say they felt it was incumbent upon them to take the heat for this project. But both Adams and Leonard are stepping down in December. When their replacements come to Council, it’s not clear if next year’s leaders will consider themselves bound to the city’s current position on fluoride.
Here’s how Water Bureau Director David Shaff put it. “I think it’ll be a very interesting year.”