Pinellas Commissioners’ 4-3 anti-fluoride vote has put a scare into voters. But there’s another development that’s even scarier.
It was almost exactly a year ago (October 11, 2011) that the Pinellas County Commission voted 4-3 to stop adding fluoride to the county’s water supply. Although water fluoridation had long met resistance in Pinellas (one reason why the county only approved it eight years earlier), critics of the 2011 vote traced it to a Tea Party-led furor that compelled commissioner John Morroni to change his mind and support the three other conservatives on the board, Norm Roche, Neil Brickfield and Nancy Bostock.
Bostock and Brickfield are running for re-election, and their Democratic opponents, Charlie Justice and Janet Long, are using the contentious issue as a reason why they should be elected next month. But theirs are not the only races where the fluoride issue is baring its bicuspids. Here’s the rundown on a few of them. (In District 5, Karen Seel is running unopposed.)
District 7: Ken Welch vs. Buck Walz
As the only Democrat on the Board of County Commissioners, Ken Welch hasn’t been shy about combating the views of Tea Party members, and what he perceives as their ignorance regarding transit, the budget, and especially fluoride. But he is surprised at the resonance of the anti-fluoride vote on the campaign trail.
Welch has been endorsed by St. Petersburg Mayor Foster, as well as former mayors Rick Baker and David Fischer, in his bid for re-election against Republican Buck Walz. To win his endorsement, Welch answered just one question from Fischer: Did he support fluoride in the water? His answer was yes, of course, and he says that’s the “number one question” he’s been hearing “all across the county.”
Tea Party members vowed to challenge Welch on the board this time around. Their candidate, the 33-year-old Walz, calls himself a winner and a leader on the campaign trail. He works in construction and says he represents the small-business community.
Welch is more than happy to debate the Tea Party’s hard-right leaning conservatives.
“They believe in Agenda 21 conspiracies as driving our policies,” says the 48-year-old St. Pete native. “I just think they’re outside of the mainstream of Pinellas County, so I welcome the debate, and I’ve yet to hear Mr. Walz’s policy positions or community service that would indicate where he would lead this county.”
District 1: Nancy Bostock vs. Charlie Justice
Charlie Justice needs a win.
The talented Democrat had been a bright star in Pinellas County political circles for over a decade, moving from the state House to the Senate in 2006. But instead of running for re-election in his hybrid Pinellas/Hillsborough seat two years ago, he tried to do what no one has been able to accomplish, well, ever — defeat Pinellas Congressman Bill Young.
Let’s just say it did not turn out so well. Justice, now the coordinator of leadership development and programming at USF St. Petersburg, lost to the GOP heavyweight by a nearly two-to-one margin.
Now he’s running for a County Commission seat against Nancy Bostock, a GOP fiscal hawk running for re-election after a previous stint on the county’s School Board.
Justice is definitely using fluoride as a cudgel in the campaign.
At a recent candidates forum in Gulfport, Bostock addressed the issue by saying that the commission in fact was not taking fluoride out of the water, insisting that in fact “fluoride was always in the water. We voted to stop adding additional chemicals to the water.”She says her vote was pro-choice, as it were, allowing residents to decide on their own whether they want fluoride in their water or not.
“I think we should go to the experts,” she said. “I just happen to think the experts are you.”
Justice told the audience his opponent was running away from the issue at hand.
“Let’s be clear. Fluoride was in the water. Pinellas County was putting fluoride in the water. The current commission voted to take it out. To stop it. Whatever terminology you want.”
Justice is being supported by several medical groups and others that rarely endorse Democrats, such as the Pinellas Realtors Organization and the Clearwater Chamber of Commerce, in strong part because of Bostock’s vote.
Another of those groups is the Upper Pinellas County Dental Association, led by Oscar Menendez. He paid to put up a billboard outside his Palm Harbor dental office in late September touting Justice and fellow Democrat Janet Long in their respective races.
Menendez has been working in Pinellas for the past 19 years and says for much of that time, when he would do dental screenings at health fairs in Clearwater, he treated kids with lots of decayed teeth. He says that since the county voted in 2003 to add fluoride, the change has been dramatic.
“By removing the fluoride, the people who are going to be hurt are those lower-income, less privileged [ones],” he says.
Darden Rice of the League of Women Voters says the fluoride vote has caused “ripples” within moderate GOP circles in Pinellas. She believes that “what we see here is the fight over the soul of the Republican Party, much more than a Democrat vs. Republican thing going on.”
Justice agrees, citing former GOP county commissioners such as Bob Stewart and Ronnie Duncan who distinguished Pinellas County from more conservative environs in the Sunshine State. And he’s targeting Bostock not just on fluoride, but also for her vote against spending $49,000 from the county’s coffers on matching funds for the Meals on Wheels program. She was the only commissioner who voted that way.
District 3: Neil Brickfield vs. Janet Long
At a campaign forum a couple of weeks ago, Janet Long greeted Commissioner Ken Welch by saying it had been a good couple of days for her. Why? She hadn’t appeared lately in the Tampa Bay Times.
That dip in coverage followed a period of potentially damaging headlines. Most recently, a story claimed that the former state lawmaker had padded her resume by saying that in the late ’70s she had acted as Seminole’s city administrator, when records show she was an administrative assistant and then a deputy clerk. Long dismissed the accusation, pointing out that the work she did was equivalent to that of running the city’s “day-to-day operations.”
But that mini-flap was nothing next to the self-immolating job she did on the anniversary of 9/11. During the course of a nearly 90-minute meeting with the paper’s editorial staff, she said, “The firefighters have really taken advantage of 9/11 and what happened then and capitalized on it and the emotion,” adding that the firefighters “can spin a message like no one I’ve ever seen,” referring to Pinellas commissioners experience in dealing with firefighters and emergency management services.
The blowback has been intense. An anti-Janet Long Facebook page was created, and Long says that firefighters and their families have been “irate and not very kind with their comments.” But she says that’s been offset by her supporters, even though they freely admit that they wouldn’t have used her words or her timing.
But coming from a family of first responders, she admits it’s been a “very painful experience to hear some of the people who think suddenly I’m a totally different person and that my values and my everything has changed because of words in a conversation.”
The 68-year-old Long is certainly brassy, and isn’t reticent to criticize her GOP opponent, Safety Harbor-based Neil Brickfield, saying she can’t think of a single issue in which he’s taken a leadership position.
“If you listen to him talk, he’ll talk about what he’s done to keep taxes down, how he’s put his finger on every line item on this budget. Really? Seriously?” Long asks, referring to his support for increasing the EMS tax rate by 46 percent.
When contacted about Long’s comments, Brickfield sticks with his mantra, saying he’s been a crucial part of a local government that has reduced the county’s budget by 36 percent and improved services. He frequently cites a poll that showed how the citizens say it’s a great place to live and work. “Those answers are my report card,” he says.
The 49-year-old New Yorker still maintains his Brooklyn accent. He moved to Pinellas in 1989 and says he fell in love with the community the first time he drove across the Howard Frankland Bridge and turned off on Ulmerton Road.
A former Safety Harbor City Commissioner, Brickfield also serves on the PSTA board, where he says he’ll support a ballot referendum next year on a possible light rail line from downtown St. Pete to downtown Clearwater.
On the fluoride issue, he says he also wanted to put the highly contentious decision in voters’ hands, proposing that it go to a referendum. But he failed to gather three other votes. He stands by his vote to take fluoride out of the water, as well as his erroneous comment that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said fluoride should not be given to infants or those under the age of 8.
The Dental Association’s Menendez dismisses that comment as “stupid stuff,” and says that Brickfield and the other commissioners who voted for the removal put too much trust in anti-fluoride advocates who “constantly bombard them with half-truths, no truths, and misinformation.”
When confronted with those comments, Brickfield counters with a criticism of Pinellas dentists. When county staff looked at the records of pediatric dentists’ bills, it was discovered that only three out of 632 dentists in Pinellas County accepted Medicaid for kids. “I take exception to that.” (A study last year by the Pew Center on the States ranked Florida dead last in the country in providing dental care for kids on Medicaid.)
The scariest election prospect of all
Although it’s not talked about much, the most ominous outcome hanging over these elections is the fact that the Commission could be shaken up severely even if all of the incumbents are re-elected.
That’s because of a lawsuit on term limits that is targeting Welch and three other Commissioners — Susan Latvala, Karen Seel and John Morroni, all of whom have spent more than eight years on the board. In 1996, 73 percent of Pinellas voters supported term limits of no longer than eight years. But because the state Supreme Court at the time said term limits weren’t legal, they’ve never been enforced.
Now the court has reversed itself and says term limits are legal.
The case is in litigation and court action won’t resume until after the November election. But if it turns out that term limits are enforceable in the county, you can say goodbye to Welch, Seel, Morroni and Latvala.
And their replacements would be selected by none other than Rick Scott.