Citizens reportedly inundated the Portland City Council with calls and emails shortly after Commissioner Randy Leonard proposed last week to fluoridate the city’s water by March 1, 2014. That’s a lot sooner than the Portland Water Bureau had said it could get the job done, and it’s a couple of months before Portland residents would vote on the matter under an initiative planned by opponents.
Is Leonard, whose proposed ordinance will receive a hearing Thursday, playing dirty pool?
Nope. There’s nothing anti-democratic about fluoridating the city’s water expeditiously, which is all Leonard has proposed to do. So what if the target completion date falls two months before the May 2014 primary?
The target date wouldn’t seem so ambitious if not for the Water Bureau’s initial estimate that fluoridating the city’s water supply would take about five years, which officials later chopped to three years. Leonard says those estimates struck him as “curious” considering conversations he’d had with the Water Bureau before going public with his fluoridation proposal. He says he’d been told that fluoridation systems were “pretty standard” in the industry and that the transition would be easy for Portland, which already injects chemicals into the city’s water at its Lusted Hill treatment facility.
The Water Bureau’s timeline was so baggy, says Leonard, because officials had built in a lot of time to “contemplate” the project, possibly because the bureau doesn’t consider fluoridation a high priority. In any case, Leonard says the schedule was “not based in the real world.”
Leonard believes the Water Bureau could fluoridate the city’s water within a year, though his proposed deadline includes about six months of padding. This speed can be achieved by working efficiently, he says, and by kicking off the permitting process immediately after the council’s expected Sept. 12 fluoridation vote rather than waiting until the first of the year.
The Water Bureau did not return a call for comment.
Leonard also expects the permitting process, which would be conducted by Multnomah County, to proceed smoothly. The city received a letter from county commissioners in support of fluoridation last week, and Leonard is “convinced that they will partner with us to expedite” the process.
Opponents might not like the prospect of the city forging ahead with fluoridation without waiting for the outcome of a May 2014 vote, but commissioners are not obligated to delay work they consider important based on speculation that voters might disagree with them. If voters upheld the project in 2014, after all, opponents could gin up the direct democracy machine again almost immediately. Should the city in that case shut down the fluoridation gadget and wait on the outcome of the next available vote?
Of course not. Fluoridation is controversial and will always be vulnerable to attack through the ballot box. That doesn’t make opponents bad, since they’re doing exactly what the law allows, but it’s a good reason for commissioners to accept a vote as likely and carry on without worrying about it. For all anyone knows, Portlanders appreciate Leonard’s aggressive schedule and, given the chance, will support fluoridation by an overwhelming margin.