Decision will allow signature gathering for proposed Philomath ballot measure
Sometimes minor changes can make all the difference.
After a hearing at the Benton County Courthouse on Thursday morning, Circuit Judge Locke Williams revised the language of a proposed Philomath ballot measure that aims to restore fluoride to the city's water supply.
Williams didn't change much: He added one word to the question and summary that will go before Philomath voters if backers succeed in getting the initiative on the ballot.
Both supporters and opponents of the initiative took issue with details in the final draft of the measure, edited by City Attorney Jim Brewer, and petitioned the court to change the wording.
Brewer's version of the ballot question reads: "Shall the City of Philomath resume adding fluoride compounds to the potable water supply system?"
John Barlow, a Philomath resident and attorney who represented himself, is a proponent of restoring fluoride to the city's water.
He said that Brewer, in editing the original measure, deleted the "purpose" - that restoring fluoride to the water would promote dental health.
"The question must plainly phrase the chief purpose of the measure," Barlow argued in court. "And the purpose of adding fluoride to the water supply is to improve dental health."
In light of the local controversy over whether fluoridated water has positive or negative health effects, Williams decided that adding the "purpose" would be too subjective.
Barlow also asked that the phrase "fluoride compounds" be changed to something less alarming for voters. Williams didn't go for that either.
After review, he revised the ballot question and summary to read "approved fluoride compounds."
Ryan Weeks, a Philomath resident who works as a vocational counselor, objects to restoring fluoride to the water supply - mostly, he said, because he can't find any convincing facts about its health benefits.
"I thought it was taken care of," Weeks said, referring to the Philomath City Council's May decision to remove fluoride from the community's drinking water after three decades of fluoridation.
When he found out there would be an attempt to restore fluoridation, his interest was piqued.
"The wording (of the ballot measure) seemed so vague and generalized everything," Weeks said. "I had more questions, and I couldn't get any answers."
Weeks was primarily concerned with the fact that the Oregon Health Authority is named in the initiative.
"We understand the OHA sets the standard," Weeks said. "Since that's a preconceived idea, we wondered why that's in there. Are they handing authority over to OHA?"
In his decision, Williams wrote: "There is dispute amongst the parties whether (the measure) would expand the authority of the OHA over the decision-making authority of the City of Philomath City Council, or whether (the measure) is simply a general restatement of OHA's existing authority to oversee fluoridation of the city water supply."
Williams concluded that he had insufficient evidence to decide that issue either way.
As for the final revision, "we'll live with it," Barlow said. "We didn't get everything we asked for, but nobody did."
The certified measure will be mailed to the Philomath elections officer on Monday, Williams wrote, at which point proponents can begin collecting petition signatures.
Barlow estimated that the group he represents, Citizens for Healthy Teeth, will need to gather around 500 signatures before the end of the holiday season to make the submission deadline. The organization hopes to get the measure on the ballot for a special election in March.
"I think some of what went on today was done for purposes of delay" so there would be a tighter timeline to secure signatures before the deadline, Barlow said. "Not so much from the city, but from the other side."
Weeks said he's not necessarily against fluoridated water, but he's not for it, either.
"I can't say I'm pro-fluoride," he said. "I'd say that I don't understand exactly why they want to bring it back."
Candice Ruud can be reached at 541-758-9542 or firstname.lastname@example.org.