Group seeks vote on plan to add chemical to city’s water

Opponents of Portland’s plan to add fluoride to the city’s water turned in signature petitions a day ahead of a deadline and with thousands of signatures to spare.

Clean Water Portland leader Kim Kaminski said the group submitted more than 43,000 signatures Thursday — far more than the 19,858 required to put the issue before voters. Advocates, who had 30 days to get the needed signatures for a referendum, wanted excess names in case some of the ones they collected are deemed invalid.

“Our goal was 30,000 and the signatures just kept coming in,” Kaminski said. “In the last few days it was like an avalanche.”

Election officials have 30 days to certify the petitions. Rick North, a volunteer with the anti-fluoride effort, said he’s confident there are enough valid names.

“We’ve been reviewing every signature with a fine tooth comb to verify that they’re valid and crossing off the ones that don’t qualify,” he said. “We expect a very high percentage of them to be accepted.”

If the petitions are certified, the City Council could choose to put the issue before voters next year. Otherwise, the election would be in May 2014.

Portland voters twice rejected fluoride before approving it in 1978. They overturned their decision before it was ever added to the water.

The council last month unanimously approved a plan to add fluoride by March 2014. Until the vote, Portland was the largest city in the U.S. yet to approve water fluoridation to combat tooth decay.

Mayor Sam Adams and city commissioners said now is the time to act because Portland children have more dental problems than children from neighboring states that fluoridate, and adding the mineral to the water is a safe, effective and affordable way to address it.

Seventy-three percent of the U.S. population drinks water treated with fluoride — more than three times the rate in Oregon.

Opponents of public fluoridation say it’s unsafe and violates an individual’s right to consent to medication.

The opposition also criticized the council for rushing into action without a public vote. The mayor and commissioners have said they were elected to make decisions, and people unhappy with what they decide have the power of the referendum.

Kaminski said that’s what her group opted to do.

“We would go and out collect signatures and people were thanking us,” Kaminski said. “Everyone thought it was a done deal and they felt really helpless.”