CLEARWATER — Divided by emotions and science, Pinellas County commissioners decided to stop adding fluoride to drinking water in a series of tense 4-3 votes.
A drive by dentists to oust two commissioners behind the move has arrived as expected.
Not as predictable: Implications that Commissioner Ken Welch, a fluoride supporter, is aiding dentists' attempts to unseat his colleagues, Nancy Bostock and Neil Brickfield.
A chain of emails reveal a group of local dentists' call to donate to Welch's re-election as a "cornerstone" of the effort, strategies to lobby for a reversal of the fluoride decision, and biting criticism of Commissioner Norm Roche, a fluoride critic, as an "uneducated fool."
Amid that, dentist Johnny Johnson of Palm Harbor wrote that he attended a Welch fund-raiser and was seeking potential election rivals for Bostock and Brickfield, Republicans who voted against adding fluoride.
"We need to ROCK & ROLL!!! Help!!!!!" Johnson wrote.
But when he hit send Jan. 27, Johnson inexplicably emailed the strategy to Roche.
Roche read the email and saw evidence of a political campaign involving one colleague (Welch) against another instead of a further discussion about improving dental care in the county.
"I cannot and will not — either directly or indirectly — be associated with any opposition effort against any of my Board colleagues," Roche warned in a Sunday email.
Roche, a Republican who recently joined the county's Election Canvassing Board, cited that role as a legal requirement for distancing himself from any activity related to political campaigning.
Roche did not return a message seeking comment, and Johnson would not agree to be interviewed about the email.
Brickfield expressed surprise to have read that Welch could play a role in a campaign against him.
"There's long been a culture on the Pinellas County Commission that incumbents don't get involved in races with other incumbents," said Brickfield.
The dentists have not registered a political action committee, but they have met regularly about how to upend the vote. Most health experts credit fluoride with helping improve dental health for decades.
The group split and failed to back a referendum to overturn the fluoride votes. Welch, a fluoride supporter and the board's only Democrat, opposed a ballot measure as risky. He's made it clear the 2012 election will be a referendum on fluoride.
"I'm not organizing any other campaign, I'm organizing my own campaign," Welch said. "Other candidates are coming forward for their own reasons, and it's no secret that the removal of fluoride is a big issue in this county."
Johnson attended Welch's campaign kickoff Jan. 26, and wrote that Welch's "first point" in his speech was fluoride. Johnson recommended lining up experts to meet with commissioners to better explain fluoridation. He also urged contributions to Commissioner Karen Seel, a Republican who backed fluoridation, and Welch.
Another attendee, Mark Weinkrantz, a Democrat on East Lake's fire commission, said Welch never spoke about an agenda to oust Brickfield or Bostock.
"As far as Ken being involved in any operation? I'm sure Ken has preferences who he would work with, I'm sure anybody would," said Weinkrantz.
At Welch's campaign kickoff at the Hangar Restaurant in St. Petersburg, Johnson met former state Sen. Charlie Justice, a Democrat, whose expected run for the commission spawned from anger over the fluoride vote. Johnson also tried to touch base with former lawmaker Janet Long, another Democrat considered likely to run for commission after the fluoride votes. But she wasn't around.
They would face Bostock and Brickfield, respectively.
After Johnson's initial email, rhetoric escalated. Roche chided dentists' commitment to helping poor children when most don't accept Medicaid patients. Johnson replied with an apology and worried the email would impugn the dentists' effort as "poor and under-handed."
Then dentist Ed Hopwood of Clearwater — who denies any Welch involvement organizing opposition — upped the ante against Roche.
"He is an uneducated fool who is playing the political game to the best of his ability," Hopwood wrote, zinging Roche for being "incapable of getting past high school."
Concluded Hopwood: "Hang in there, we will all be better off when Roche is no longer in office."
Roche is up in 2014.
Bostock brushed off the re-election threat, saying she can defend her vote as giving people "individual freedom" to choose whether to consume fluoride.
But after acrimony dominated the commission in 2011, she hopes for a more civil tone before November's election.
"We don't really need all this kind of infighting," she said, "because it doesn't serve anyone."