- Daria Bishop
- Pennie Rand expressing her displeasure about the drop in fluoride levels in town water
The unanimous decision by the town’s five-member Water and Sewer Commission followed an apology by the long-time employee, Kendall Chamberlin, a closed-door session to consider disciplining him and criticism from those outraged that a town employee lowered fluoride levels meant to keep people’s teeth healthy.
“My understanding is that Kendall unilaterally changed the water fluoridation level without consulting anyone and without any transparency to the community,” said resident Pennie Rand, a characterization that was not disputed by anyone.
At the last commission meeting, on September 19, Chamberlin had attempted to defend his 2019 decision to lower fluoride levels in town water from the recommended 0.7 part per million to closer to 0.3 parts per million. He said he did so out of his personal belief that it was better to have fewer chemicals in the town’s water and his concern about the safety of the sodium fluoride supply from China.
This time, however, Chamberlin declined to answer questions posed to him by the public or attempt to explain his actions. He instead appeared remotely at the meeting held at Richmond Town Hall, turning on his video screen just long enough to deliver a short mea culpa.
“Words cannot express how sorry I am for causing this controversy,” he said. “I offer my sincerest apology to the residents of Richmond, especially to the town manager and water and sewer commission and the selectboard.”
- Courtesy photo
- Kendall Chamberlin
It’s unclear whether that will satisfy the commission or town manager Josh Arneson, Chamberlin’s supervisor. Arneson had previously praised Chamberlin’s intentions as pure but offered no such defense of the longtime superintendent on Monday.
He said disciplinary actions against employees are not made public. Arneson suggested, however, that Chamberlin and his subordinates may have misled him to believe that the fluoride and other levels were within the acceptable range.
“I was told, 'Yes, they were,'” Arneson said, noting that no one from the state raised a red flag, either.
Arneson, who said he is not an expert in water regulations, took some responsibility for not moving faster after learning in June of the town's low fluoride levels.
He said the issue “didn’t rise to the level of urgency for me that I realize now it should have.”
Residents said they appreciated the airing of the issue but demanded someone be held accountable for a mess that had gone undetected for so long.
“It’s the fact that we didn’t have the opportunity to give our informed consent that gets to me,” said resident KT Mather, who said she respects Chamberlin but feels he stepped over an important line.
Mather said her two sugar-loving kids recently came back from the dentist with their first cavities. Her dentist never prescribed fluoride treatments, she said.
“She was operating and making professional recommendations based on state standards we all assumed were being met, which they were not,” Mather said.
Not everyone was there to blast Chamberlin. Erik Bailey, the manager of the Village of Johnson, said he knew and respected Chamberlin and understood his hesitation about adding chemicals to drinking water.
"Kendall is just trying to protect you from toxic chemicals in your water," Bailey said.
Commissioner Bard Hill said he nevertheless supported a “vote to return to full fluoridation,” and called for any future change from the standard to require public notice and discussion.
Commissioner Jay Furr said the town could vote down the road to change its participation in the fluoridation program, but for now it made sense to focus on fixing the short-term problem.
“This motion before us is to essentially put in writing what we thought we already were doing,” he said.