March 7, 2000

City scraps fluoride vote

Commission votes to shelve idea of drinking water additive, pursue grant for dental sealants.


In what at least one member admitted was a 180-degree turnabout, the Winfield City Commission Monday decided against a public vote on water fluoridation, opting instead to apply for a grant to provide a dental sealant program for underprivileged children.

"I first thought an advisory vote was the best thing to do, but since then I have reconsidered," commissioner Greg Thompson said. "I have asked myself 'Will (a public vote) provoke more name calling and inflammatory statements?' and I am convinced it would create more division."

In August, the Winfield Area Chamber of Commerce asked commissioners to consider applying for a grant from the United Methodist Health Ministries Fund that would cut fluoridation costs to the city. Proponents say fluoride in drinking water cuts down on tooth decay, particularly in children. Opponents have labeled the additive a toxin.

Just last week at a council work session, Thompson and commissioner Phil Jarvis voiced support for an advisory ballot to gauge public opinion on fluoridation. The two had even outlined rudimentary plans for organizing the ballot casting.

Ultimately, though, the outcry from a group calling itself the Fluoride Awareness Team - a collection of activists aimed at keeping fluoride out of Winfield water - wore on the commissioners and prompted them not only to opt against a public vote but to drop the idea of fluoridation indefinitely.

"The (anti-fluoride) campaign from beginning to now has had a great impact" on my decision, Thompson said after the meeting.

For nearly six months the anti-fluoride team lobbied doggedly against what they say are the health risks of mass medication. Team members circulated two petitions around town - one calling for a public referendum on the issue and one calling for the idea to be dropped.

Commissioners said they hope Monday's decision will quell the emotion surrounding the issue and allow for some closure. Thompson said it was his opinion an advisory vote would further divide the community and alienate rural voters who drink Winfield city water but would not have been able to vote in an advisory election. He said comments on an Internet bulletin board were proof the debate had gotten out of hand.

"The emotions were getting higher and higher on this issue," said Thompson. "I feel if we were to put it to a public vote we'd be throwing gasoline on the fire. I know I'm on the record as supporting a public vote, but I've had time to review it and don't think it is the best idea right now."

The commission unanimously approved a measure to apply to the church group for funds for a dental sealant program. Under that program the city would likely team with an agency - like the Winfield Food Pantry - to identify children who might participate in the program. But unlike fluoridating the water, the sealant program requires a trip to a dentist's office where a special coating that helps protect against cavities can be applied to the teeth.

The commission did express concern that the program would reach considerably fewer children, especially among families for whom dental care might be "further down the list of priorities," as one commissioner put it. Mayor Mike Ledy calls the sealant grant application a "halfway solution in my estimation."

"It's a compromise," Ledy said following the meeting. "I'm not sure it is a fair compromise, but it's a compromise."

In an interesting prelude to voting on the grant, all three commissioners voiced their support for fluoridation. Each spent a few minutes commenting on the debate that had ensued in recent months. It also seemed the advisory vote might still come to fruition. But with no commissioner willing to make a motion calling for the election, the idea was abandoned.

"I personally don't have a problem with fluoridation," Jarvis said. "But in light of the fact this has been to an advisory vote and defeated (before), I can't ignore that and vote for fluoridation." Jarvis, too, had supported the public vote but said he did not feel strongly enough about it to make a motion to put the directive for an election to a vote of the commission.

Jarvis, a nine-year member of the commission, referred to a 1980 advisory election that showed Winfield voters to be soundly opposed to fluoridation of the public drinking supply. He thanked the anti-fluoride team for their work and "running a clean campaign."

Winfield Area Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Heidi Hill said her organization favored fluoride. "It was the pro position that we wanted the water supply fluoridated," she said.

Hill said the chamber was hoping for a public vote but commended the commission for its prudence. The commission was "correct in gauging that this was not a good time for a public vote even though we were for that," she said.

The decision Monday saves the city approximately $5,700 it would have cost to fund a mail-in election and puts an end to the prospect of at least another two months of campaigning.

Monday night's decision was reason for hugging and hand shaking for about 30 fluoride opponents. The protesters, some wearing "no-fluoride" badges, thanked the commission for its decision and claimed victory in the fight to keep what they call "poison" out of area water.

"We certainly do feel like this is a victory for us," said Deanna Havens, who played an active role on the Fluoride Awareness Team. "This (dental sealants) is an acceptable solution for us, because we certainly don't want to stand in the way of children's dental health."

All parties involved said they are hopeful this will resolve the issue for awhile.

"We'll give the sealant program a try and see what happens," said Thompson. "I'm sure the grant on sealants will run out sometime, and I don't see us revisiting this issue until that time."


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