Without paid signature-gatherers, volunteers press on

When Multnomah County commissioners legalized gay marriage in 2004 after only token public involvement, citizen outrage helped power a ballot measure campaign that wound up overturning the decision.

Now anti-fluoride activists hope to tap similar anger at Portland City Council’s rushed decision on Sept. 12 to fluoridate the city water supply.

Though they have just 30 days to circulate petitions, activists say they’re on track to gather 40,000 signatures by the Oct. 12 deadline. That’s twice the number needed to qualify for a May 2014 ballot referendum, with wiggle room for invalid signatures, and suspend any changes to the water supply until the public vote.

Kimberly Kaminski, director of Clean Water Portland, says she’s optimistic the group will meet its goal. At least 600 volunteers have been dispatched with clipboards to farmers markets, New Seasons grocery stores and other places where people congregate, Kaminski says. And the campaign has begun to hire some experienced canvassers to supplement their work.

Still, volunteer-led signature drives rarely succeed in Oregon anymore. Ballot measure campaign experts are skeptical the inexperienced, poorly funded, volunteer-run group can succeed in such a short time period.

“I don’t know that passion on the issue is the same as productivity on signature-gathering,” says Kevin Looper, a Portland political consultant who has worked on 22 ballot measure campaigns. “I think these guys making the ballot is going to be like pulling teeth. I don’t think their experience in ballot measure land is deep.”

Kaminski won’t divulge numbers, but says the group hit the halfway mark toward its petitioning goal last week in the middle of the 30-day period. To mark what the campaign called “hump day,” scores of volunteers sipped fluoride-free beer at a party at the Southeast Portland campaign offices.

As of Monday, though, the group had only raised $26,000, not enough to pay for a professional signature-gathering firm that’s usually used to qualify Oregon ballot measures.

“It is often the case that volunteers can be more costly per-signature than hiring experience,” Looper says.

Some volunteers are good at gathering signatures while others don’t pan out, he says. It takes training to learn how to gather signatures well, and learn the state regulations for petitioning, but there’s not much time in a campaign put together so quickly.

Help on the street

But Clean Water Portland seems to have found a way to get more experienced folks out on the streets.

Eli Richey, a paid canvas director for the campaign, says there’s no need to hire a professional petitioning company because there are so many experienced canvassers available who can work directly for the campaign. Richey has done street and door-to-door canvassing for the likes of Environment Oregon, Greenpeace and other groups since 1997.

“We will take the campaign door to door soon,” he says.

One of those hired hands was Jenn Struckholz, who was gathering signatures in front of the Hawthorne New Seasons on Monday. Struckholz says she offered to work for the campaign after hearing it had only 30 days to gather signatures, despite holding another job as a canvasser with Bark, an environmental group working on Mt. Hood National Forest issues.

“I’ve been doing canvassing, off and on, for about 10 years,” she says.

She managed to get 100 signatures in about 16 hours, paid hourly as required by state law.

‘What’s the rush?’

That’s not cheap, but paid canvassers are asking for cash donations as they gather signatures. As a result, Richey says, they’re raising enough to cover their own pay for signature-gathering.

By hiring canvassers who are used to working for social-change organizations, as opposed to folks merely getting paid to gather signatures, no matter the cause, Clean Water Portland hopes to build up a web of campaign supporters. The goal is to build a coalition of 25,000 Portland Water Bureau customers, Richey says, to work for the coalition’s broader clean-water agenda.

That might include a subsequent initiative campaign if the referendum fails to hit its signature-gathering target.

An initiative would amend the city code to ban fluoridating the water supply. While there’d be a longer period to gather signatures, the city could go ahead and install its fluoridation equipment before an initiative comes to a vote, also in May 2014.

With one eye on that May 2014 potential vote, City Commissioner Randy Leonard pushed the City Council to speed up the move to fluoridation — to have the equipment installed by March 2014 — two months earlier.

“You really have to ask yourself: ‘What’s the rush?’ “ Kaminski says.

But she knows the answer. Fluoride supporters, mindful that Portland voters have rejected fluoridation three times in past decades when it was put to a vote, didn’t want to see that happen again.

Anti-fluoride activists acknowledge it could make some voters reluctant to reverse the process once the city has already invested $5 million in fluoridation equipment.

“Once the infrastructure is built,” Kaminski says, “it’s harder to take it out than to keep it out.”

Still, it’s clear the City Council’s rushed decision, which allowed opponents little time to mobilize or even testify before majority support on the council was announced, could backfire by provoking citizen outrage about the process.

Struckholz estimates that 5 percent to 10 percent of the people signing petitions are in favor of fluoridating water, but want a public vote on it.

“I think it’s been hugely helpful the way the city went about this,” Kaminski says.

Leonard did not respond to a request for comment.