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Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Unanimous Vote for Fluoride; Referendum Expected This Afternoon

Posted by Denis C. Theriault on Wed, Sep 12, 2012 at 11:59 AM

Jesse Sponberg unfurls a banner shortly before his ouster from council.
Commissioners Dan Saltzman and Amanda Fritz snuffed the last remaining bit of political drama looming over today's Portland City Council vote on fluoride, breaking their silence with well-parsed yes votes that made the council's expected decision a unanimous one.

Saltzman was far more convicted in his decision, though, than Fritz was.

"The dental health of a child during their formative years will affect him for his entire life," he said. "It is extremely hard to concentrate in school when your mouth hurts all the time.... The single most effective, safest, and affordable way to extend lifelong dental health to our youngest Portlanders is to fluoridate our drinking water."

Fritz's voice, instead, broke up as she read, for several minutes, from prepared remarks that acknowledged, as she saw it, lingering uncertainty over the risks of fluoride, questions about its efficacy if people still feed kids sugar and don't brush teeth, and what's arguably been a lousy public process for an issue so passionate and controversial. Well before any hearings were scheduled, Mayor Sam Adams and Commissioners Randy Leonard and Nick Fish had announced their support.

Ultimately, though, Fritz said she couldn't talk about equity on one hand and then ignore the pleas for fluoridation coming from minority community groups. Her "aye" vote—which stunned a hissing, booing, backtalking crowd in search of at least one "no" champion—came with a huge caveat:

"Some of the concerns raised by opponents are valid," Fritz said, after noting that "fluoride isn't a cure-all. We will still have dental health disparities... We cannot simply add fluoride and expect that our children and adults will have cavity-free, perfect teeth."

At least eight people were ejected by a standing cadre of security guards and police officers after repeated warnings from Adams to pipe down and not shout—"More of that, and I'll just have you removed. It's very simple."—although as one security guard joked afterward: "I lost count" of exactly how many. The outrage flared fantastically after Fritz spoke. One guy was almost forcibly ejected by officers and shouted "fuck you" at everyone on his way out the door.

Police attempt to boot a man who shouted fuck several times on his way out of the council chambers.
  • Police attempt to boot a man who shouted "fuck" several times on his way out of the council chambers.

That anger then kept flowing in the city hall plaza, where protesters held signs and booed and heckled fluoridation proponents and chanted loudly enough that they could be heard in the council chambers. And immediately after the council meeting, anti-fluoride proponents were down in the city auditor's office asking permission to gather signatures for a 2014 referendum. They were told they would have to wait until this afternoon, when the ordinance approving fluoridation would be recorded and given an official number.

A statement by the group, Clean Water Portland, said 125 volunteers have registered to help gather signatures and that 25 paid gatherers are expected to be in place by the end of the week.

"Whether you are for or against water fluoridation, giving voters the right to have a say on water fluoridation just makes sense, and that is what this referendum is aimed to do," Kim Kaminski, a spokeswoman for the group, is quoted as saying in the statement.

Petitioner Frances Quaempts-Miller, who last week spoke of the council's
  • Petitioner Frances Quaempts-Miller, who last week spoke of the council's "white guilt," in the auditor's office with referendum paperwork.

During the meeting, and also during a short cool-down break after the vote, Adams and Fish and Leonard all defended the public process behind the vote, rattling off the number of comments and emails they'd seen and mentioned how they'd even managed to watch a documentary opposing fluoride, An Inconvenient Tooth after opponents begged them to do it.

"I understand why my predecessors didn't vote for it," Leonard quipped when it was his time to vote, also making sure to mention he didn't get the "point" of the documentary. "This is not an issue for the faint of heart."

Fluoridation could start as soon as March 2014, according to city documents. That would be before any referendum, which, under city rules, can't happen until the general election of an even-numbered year. There isn't enough time to gather and validate signatures ahead of this fall's election.

Fritz said, during her remarks, that she fully expected some kind of vote would happen—even though she felt the preponderance of evidence she reviewed pointed toward the benefits of fluoridation. Her vote was a difficult one, politically, given the support she's courting from voters outraged over water rates and water projects.

"The way we get there does matter," she said.

Cameras descend on Mayor Sam Adams after the vote.
  • Cameras descend on Mayor Sam Adams after the vote.

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