Sidestepping a fractious election-year debate, the Astoria City Council narrowly voted Monday night not to undertake a ballot question on fluoride in the city’s drinking water.
Voters in 1952 authorized the city to add fluoride to the water supply and reaffirmed the decision in 1956.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has praised community water fluoridation, which can help reduce tooth decay, as among the 10 great public health achievements of the 20th century.
Yet water fluoridation remains an emotional, polarizing subject. The Oregon Health Authority reports that less than a quarter of state residents have fluoride in their drinking water. Voters in Portland, the state’s largest city, overruled city leaders and voted to reject fluoride in 2013, the fourth time since 1956.
Last August, Astoria City Councilor Zetty Nemlowill suggested the City Council discuss putting the issue on the ballot. But the idea did not surface again publicly until City Councilor Drew Herzig brought it up Monday night as one of several possible ballot questions for November.
The City Council has already agreed to place a local tax on recreational marijuana before voters.
Mayor Arline LaMear and Councilors Cindy Price and Russ Warr said the city is working through several significant issues and predicted that a debate over fluoride would be time consuming and divisive.
“I just don’t think it’s the time to bring it up,” LaMear said. “There may come a time. But I don’t think it’s this time.”
Herzig said November would be the best time to put the ballot questions up for a vote because higher voter turnout is expected due to the presidential election. In addition to fluoride, he floated issues such as term limits and outdated city charter provisions.
“I’m concerned that I’m hearing that we don’t have time to be a democracy,” Herzig said. “That we’re just too busy to ask the public — the citizens — to vote on issues.
“Something as fundamental as what you put into your body on a daily basis, that you have no choice over, unless we say we can put a referendum on the ballot saying whether you want fluoride.
“That bothers me that we say we’re too busy to ask the public if they want to have what some people consider a poison in the drinking water or not.”
Warr said he is “failing to see a public outcry for something like that. And, we’re busy, if the public isn’t asking for it, why should we stir the pot?”
Nemlowill acknowledged there is no public outcry over fluoride and said “if people do want to vote on it, they’re going to need to come forward and be a little bit more vocal about it.”
Herzig proposed that city staff draft a ballot question on fluoride in the water system, but his motion failed on a 3-2 vote, with Herzig and Nemlowill voting for the motion and LaMear, Price and Warr against.
Ken Nelson, a city public works superintendent, prepared a memo on Astoria’s colorful history with fluoride after the Portland vote.
Once fluoride was added to the water supply in 1953, Nelson wrote, “citizens started to revolt spreading false rumors of broken water mains, broken plumbing, premature unexplained deaths, ships refusing to take on water, chinchilla herds dying, dwarfs ...the Red Machine infiltrates the State Board of Health to allow Stalin Soup and Lenin Likker.”
Despite the vitriol, voters approved fluoride in 1956 by a wider margin than the original 1952 vote.