Portland’s Battle for Fluoride-free Water

By Rick North
On August 10, 2012, readers of the Oregonian newspaper awoke to this front-page headline: “Portland fluoride plans flow quietly”.

The article revealed a behind-the-scenes effort by pro-fluoridationists, led by Upstream Public Health and their paid lobbyist, to persuade members of Portland city council to overturn Portland’s long-standing opposition to the chemical. Residents had voted against fluoridation three times (most recently in 1980).

Since May, Upstream had been meeting with the city water bureau to plan for fluoridation. The first meeting also included a representative from the Oral Health Division of the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

Upstream’s “shock and awe” campaign

Starting even earlier, Upstream had been quietly persuading numerous organizations behind the scenes to garner their endorsements. These included the Oregon Dental Association, Oregon Medical Association, Oregon Academy of Family Physicians, Oregon Nurses Association, Oregon Public Health Association, Regence Blue Cross Blue Shield and Kaiser Permanente.

They also received endorsements from many low-income and minority organizations such as the Urban League, Oregon Head Start, African American Health Coalition, Asian Health & Service Center, Oregon Latino Health Coalition and Native American Youth Association.

When the pro-fluoridationists were ready to move, in what Paul Connett has called their “shock and awe” campaign, Upstream had over 80 organizations in their “Everyone Deserves Healthy Teeth Coalition”. Not one had contacted Oregon Citizens for Safe Drinking Water (OCSDW) to get the other side of the story.

OCSDW knew that Upstream had hired a lobbyist over a year ago (who was also a campaign consultant for several Portland commissioners and candidates), but had figured that no attempt to fluoridate would take place until after the November 2012 election. OCSDW had met with staff of city commissioners earlier in the year and received assurance that no fluoridation attempt was in the works.

Everything done in secret

The discussions were so secret that mayors of Portland suburbs, under multi-year contracts to buy Portland’s water, didn’t know about them either. Water couldn’t be segregated so residents of these suburbs would be forced to drink fluoridated water if Portland fluoridated. Three of the largest cities, Tigard, Tualatin and Gresham, all sent letters to Portland mayor Sam Adams critical of the action and stealth by which it was pursued.

The print media were almost totally supportive of fluoridation. The Oregonian’s editorials led the way, labeling opposition as “crackpottery” and running a political cartoon picturing the opposition as toothless barbarians demonstrating in front of city hall. However, the Oregonian’s straight news coverage was fairly unbiased.

Two weekly newspapers, Willamette Week and the Portland Mercury, also supported fluoridation. Only one major paper, the twice-weekly Portland Tribune, stayed independent and ran several stories highlighting aspects of the story the other papers didn’t have. The TV stations were neutral. KGW, the NBC affiliate, had a debate on a half hour public affairs program with two representatives from each side.

Portland is a liberal city and the main progressive talk radio station, KPOJ, had a morning talk show host who was staunchly pro-fluoride and dismissive of anyone opposing it. KBOO, another progressive station, was more even-handed. It hosted a debate between Paul Connett and a pro-fluoride advocate, who intimidated that Paul was a fearmonger. When Paul challenged her to produce one page in his book The Case Against Fluoride, that she could call fearmongering she responded that the whole book was fearmongering. Afterwards, she privately admitted to Paul that she hadn’t actually read the book!

Upstream was also running a 30-second TV spot featuring a physician supporting fluoridation. On the spot, he emphasized that “Fluoridation is supported by every major health organization – every one”. The statement wasn’t true, but the ad ran anyway, on both TV, and the internet.

Like clockwork

After the story broke, the process moved swiftly. Commissioner Randy Leonard, who headed the city water bureau, led the way. Mayor Sam Adams and commissioner Nick Fish declared their support of the fluoridation ordinance in advance of the sole public hearing, held on Sept. 6. This ensured the ordinance would pass in Portland’s five-member city council.

Other government endorsements followed like clockwork, including the Multnomah County (where Portland is located) commissioners and Governor John Kitzhaber, a physician.

Resistance by citizens

Fluoridation opponents, caught totally off guard, scrambled to react. OCSDW convened an initial organizational meeting immediately after the Oregonian article in which it was decided to:

1. Start a website (www.cleanwaterportland.org) under the name Clean Water Portland (CWP) and produce basic materials

2. Meet with commissioners to try to persuade them to vote against the ordinance

3. Line up speakers opposing fluoride for the public hearing

4. Have Paul Connett come to speak at a public meeting and offer to talk with media

5. Place an initiative on the ballot for May 2014 that would prohibit the city from adding industrial by-products (other than water treatments) to the water, which would stop fluoridation.

The race to beat democracy

Leonard first announced that even if fluoridation passed, it would take five years to plan and install the equipment to initiate it. Shortly afterwards, he revised the estimate to three years. Then, on Aug. 31, he stated that the process could be expedited so that it would start no later than March 2014, two months before the May 2014 ballot initiative.

Clean Water Portland immediately ran into resistance. One commissioner and the mayor refused to meet directly with CWP representatives. Another agreed to meet, but only after he had declared he would vote for fluoridation.

The self-fulfilling prophecy unfolds

At the September 6, hearing, Leonard had lined up a stream of supporters to speak on an “Expert Panel” that went for two full hours before citizens were allowed to speak. Clean Water Portland had requested equal time on the panel but not one anti-fluoridation representative was allowed to speak. After the panel, the testimony went on for nearly five hours. Most speakers had between two and three minutes.

The efforts to oppose fluoridation were too little and too late. A majority of the commissioners had already made up their minds and there had been insufficient time to get organizations and masses of people educated. On September 12, all five city commissioners voted to fluoridate. Only one seemed conflicted. All said they received thousands of e-mails and phone calls on fluoridation – more than any other issue they had ever experienced.

One Option left

There was only one option left for CWP – gather enough signatures to force a public vote through a referendum. This task is so daunting that the last successful referendum effort on any issue in Portland was 11 years ago. Clean Water Portland would need to gather nearly 20,000 signatures in 30 days from Sept. 12, to be successful. This would necessitate gathering at least 30,000 – 35,000 to have a comfortable enough margin that 20,000 signatures would be valid.

Anticipating the city council vote, CWP convened an emergency planning meeting Sept. 9, bringing together CWP leaders with others who had recently become involved.

Within a week, CWP filed paperwork with the city, located and rented office space, installed equipment and recruited and trained office volunteers and signature gatherers. To obtain so many signatures in such a short time, the campaign would need both volunteers and paid signature gatherers.

To raise money for the paid signature gatherers, individual members of the executive committee donated and several asked others for donations. An electronic system of accepting donations was set up on the website. In all, about $44,000 was raised in a month. Virtually the entire amount was used for the paid signature gatherers and office expenses. The entire CWP leadership worked as volunteers.

In all, about 200 volunteers gathered signatures, a few gathering nearly 1,000 apiece. There were about two dozen paid gatherers. On October 11, one day before the deadline, CWP leadership turned in over 43,000 signatures, a remarkable achievement, and an indication of how upset citizens were over both fluoridation and the rushed, clandestine process that had attempted to push it through. City officials validated over 33,000 signatures, easily qualifying for the referendum.

The success of the signature-gathering meant that city officials couldn’t do anything to move toward fluoridation, including planning, buying of equipment, etc. Nothing can happen until the vote.

Two city council backers of fluoridation, Randy Leonard and Mayor Sam Adams, didn’t run for re-election. However, the two men replacing them have both expressed support for fluoridation.

The referendum has been scheduled for the May 2014 election. However, city council could decide that it can be held earlier. They had four options for 2013 – March, May, September or November. The deadline for March has already passed, but Upstream is pushing the commissioners for May 2013.

The leadership of Clean Water Portland is planning for the earliest possible date.

Article provided by www.fluoridealert.org