When Portland Water Bureau officials estimated that it would take at least five years to begin fluoridating local drinking water, Commissioner Randy Leonard pressed them to speed up.
Four years? Not quickly enough, Leonard responded.
The Water Bureau went back to its engineers and asked them to squeeze as much as possible. “If all the stars line up correctly and everything goes without a hitch,” the bureau’s administrator wrote to a Leonard aide last week, fluoride could be added beginning Oct. 10, 2014.
That’s the back story of how Leonard disregarded the Water Bureau’s timeline and decided last week that the project could be completed in 18 months, by March 1, 2014 — two months before residents may get a crack at voting to ban fluoride. The fluoride effort would affect more than 900,000 residents in Portland and wholesale customers in Gresham, Tigard, Tualatin and beyond.
Leonard’s controversial $5 million proposal and fast-tracked schedule head to the Portland City Council Thursday for a 2 p.m. hearing, with a vote next Wednesday. Three of the council’s five members have said they will vote in support, ensuring its passage and ending Portland’s reign as the largest city in the country that hasn’t approved fluoride.
Leonard, who oversees the Water Bureau, defended his schedule Wednesday. He said the bureau built in too much time for land-use review and permitting, which he thinks Multnomah County could expedite.
“It’s way more process time than is needed,” he said.
Opponents, meanwhile, have planned an initiative effort to ban fluoride. First they need to collect 29,786 valid signatures. Then city code prohibits initiatives from ballots in odd-numbered years, so the earliest a vote could happen is May 2014.
Kimberly Kaminski, who heads the opposition group, called Leonard’s schedule “a total subversion of the democratic process.” Fluoride has a long history in Portland, with residents voting in favor once but against it three times, first in 1956 and most recently in 1980.
“He’s railroading this through so that the people don’t have a say,” said Kaminski, who is executive director of Oregon Citizens for Safe Drinking Water. “And he’s not going to be in office to have to deal with the ramifications of that.”
Leonard’s term expires in December. He denied, however, that he sought a faster timeline to complicate the initiative effort. Opponents could instead challenge the council decision through a referendum, he said, by gathering 19,868 valid signatures within 30 days and forcing a vote next year.
“Go out and get the signatures, and we’ll vote on it,” Leonard said.
In June, when the Water Bureau began estimating costs and schedules, officials wrote that “it would take at least 5 years to pilot, design, permit and construct a fluoride facility.”
But on Aug. 27, bureau administrator David Shaff and chief engineer Michael Stuhr met with Leonard and fluoride proponents to review four-year and three-year timelines, according to documents and an email obtained under the state’s public-records law.
Leonard pushed officials to rework the schedule. On Aug. 29, Shaff emailed one of Leonard’s aides with the October 2014 date.
Shaff said Wednesday that he was surprised when Leonard proposed an even shorter schedule. Shaff said he doesn’t know whether the time frame is doable but plans to provide updates to the City Council as the project advances.
“Whether or not we can chop another six months off it?” he said. “That’ll be a challenge.”