10-1 Council: A New Ball Game

City Council Health &  Human Services Committee

HHS Committee  L to R: Ora Houston (Chair), Kathie Tovo (V-Chair), Ellen Troxclair, Delia Garza

In case you might wonder what’s happened since our last post 3 months ago:  The answer is a lot.  For two weeks–between February 17 and March 3–an anti-fluoridation PSA aired weekdays on the popular Dr. Oz TV show. Dovetailing perfectly, a March article by Dr. Joan Sefcik, DDS appeared in the popular local health monthly Natural Awakenings, keeping the message fresh for another month.  The 1-2 combo sparked an alarmed defense reaction by the ordinarily silent-on-fluoride Austin Statesman, which, amusingly, took the precaution of first disabling  their comments section.

Against that backdrop, the new, larger but far less experienced (91% freshman) Council took up its serious work of governing an explosively-growing city with myriad problems lurking beneath its prosperous, high tech gloss.  Affordability issues, traffic congestion, planning and zoning nightmares, skyrocketing utilities rates, budgetary shortfalls, poverty (yes, poverty in Austin)–all consequences of uncontrolled growth. all vitally important.

So what are the prospects for our single issue–an end to fluoridation–gaining traction? Where does that fit into the new scheme of things?  The City of Austin is not known for giving high priority to health issues unless accompanied by grant money of some kind or other (it’s just accepted  $183,906 in funding from the Texas Department of State Health Services for Ebola preparedness and response).  So the mass poisoning of our population with fluoride, though important, will hardly be seen as a front-burner item unless we work very diligently to keep it at the fore.

Still, our chances are far better than they were under the prior regime, during which then-Mayor Leffingwell famously declared that on the fluoride issue he answers only to the CDC, not the citizens of Austin.  Mayor Adler has expressed openness to a re-examination of fluoridation, noting widespread opposition to the practice both here and beyond. And although we cannot read the new Council’s minds, we believe that several of them are open as well.

The main take-away at this point is that much of the work of the 10-1 City Council will originate in the numerous Committees of Council.  For our purposes, the most relevant committee will be Health and Human Services (above), which meets at 4:00 p.m. on the first Monday of each month in City Council chambers,  Items approved in committee will be sent to the full Council for further consideration–though how smoothly that process will go with an even-numbered committee remains to be seen.

Like City Council, the Committee offers a citizens’ communication period for the public to speak on non-agenda items.  Their signup procedure differs from the regular City Council citizens’ communication in that it takes place just before the meeting.  Although speaker slots are only 2 minutes in length, several people can coordinate to get their names in the signup sheet in sequence, adding up to a single longer presentation.  Which is exactly what two FFA members did at the May 4th meeting (here). Our purpose was to document the absurdity of the final sentence in Austin Water Utility’s  “advisory” regarding the mixing of infant formula with fluoridated tapwater:

Red Band

Back in 2011, Fluoride Free Austin won a hard-fought battle to have the City issue (as has been done in numerous other places) a notice alerting new parents that mixing formula with city tapwater could increase the possibility of their baby developing dental fluorosis. The message, we assumed, would be some variation on the wording of the most recent CDC guideline, itself already much diluted from the original strong warning. Imagine our surprise, when the “advisory” was at last unveiled, to discover a concluding sentence that seemingly negates what went before. This ill-advised addition, which directly contradicts the CDC and ADA positions, was traced to the personal opinion of a pediatrician without direct ties to either.

The don’t-take-this-advice advice, we can safely assume, was tacked on by then-Travis County PHHS director David Lurie and/or medical officer Philip Huang. Hopefully the current director will be less tolerant of such misleading messaging. Meanwhile, it continues to appear in the annual water quality report and in bilingual fliers available at WIC centers, and remains posted on the City’s website.

It’s fitting here to mention that the Austin/Travis County Public Health and Human Services Department has a new director, Shannon Jones III. Jones, previously deputy director, assumed the position last month upon the abrupt and slightly mysterious departure of  his predecessor Carlos Rivera. We wish him well in his new post. Feel free to contact him and politely express your desire to end fluoridation as soon as possible. His email is shannon.jones@austintexas.gov.