Tuesday, January 16, 2018
Politics

Sue Carlton: Lessons learned after the fluoride fever breaks

The Pinellas County Commission's fluoride fiasco could be studied in high school civics classes for lessons about how government works.

Or, how it doesn't work.

But then it does again.

Those particular Pinellas politicians have traditionally been a steady, nuts-and-bolts, in-the-middle sort of board — especially compared with their commission counterparts in Hillsborough County, pretty much the crazy uncle next door. Over the years in Hillsborough government, you could count on acrimony and scandal, Bible verses and lawsuits, even the occasional arrest and federal prison sentence.

Pinellas seemed so steady — until fluoride fever hit.

At a commission workshop last year, they were talking about the cavity-fighting material already being added to the county drinking water. Tea partiers, anti-government types and assorted conspiracy theorists pounced. They inundated elected officials with e-mails and calls. They built a feverish tide. And they convinced four of seven board members to vote to quit adding fluoride to the drinking water.

Never mind that dentists who deal with tooth decay daily — not to mention the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the Florida Department of Health, among others — believe in fluoride's value to our dental health. Fear won the day anyway.

Somewhere in there is a lesson about slow, steady deliberation when you hold the public trust, as opposed to listening to the loudest voice in the room. There's also a lesson in how politics can come back to bite you.

Two Republican commissioners who voted to get rid of fluoride and were up for re-election found themselves challenged by Democrats, and with fluoride front and center, and lost.

There's definitely something to learn when the voters have spoken.

The final switch back to sanity — and fluoridated drinking water — came this week with the new commissioners on board. It came after hours of public testimony in a packed house. People said they did not want government's nose in their water. They blamed fluoride for health troubles. Some had more sinister theories, like a government plot to medicate we the people into dumbed-down docility.

"Terrorism at the highest," a speaker called it.

This was a lesson in free speech and making room for opinions of all stripe. But there's also a lesson in an elected board that listened and then voted 6-1 to right a wrong.

Commissioner John Morroni, who had previously been swept up by the anti-fluoride lobby, learned something after the ousting of two colleagues. This time he voted in the name of sensibility.

Not so for Commissioner Norm Roche, this week's singular no vote, who notably is up for re-election himself in two years.

Will those tea party and don't-poison-my-water types rally for him? Or will he suffer the same political fate as his two ousted colleagues, thanks to the clear vision that can come after a bout of fluoride fever?

With that, the Pinellas County Commission ended an unnecessary change that did not serve the citizens they represent. Now the board can get back to the boring business of governing with a steady hand rather than giving in to a feverish tide. Lesson learned.

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