CORNING — Assuming the petition seeking to prevent the fluoridation of the city of Corning’s public water supply contains enough valid signatures and satisfies other legal requirements, a referendum on the issue could go to voters in the 2008 general election, according to a written opinion from the city’s attorney.
The memo also states that Corning’s city clerk has 30 days to examine the proposed local law, which is included in the petitions presented to Corning City Council on Sept. 27, and to verify the signatures.
If the clerk finds the petitions contain at least 10 percent of the number of people voting in the last gubernatorial election — about 306 names — she must inform the council that the petitions comply with the law.
Council must then vote on whether to send the proposed law to the Steuben County Board of Elections, which would then place it on the ballot next year.
The referendum can’t be placed on the ballot for November this year, Corning City Manager Mark Ryckman said, because 60 days must pass between when the proposed law is placed on the ballot and the elections take place.
“It appears the proposed referendum is mandatory because it abolishes, transfers or curtails the power of an elective officer,” Corning’s city attorney, Pamela Doyle Gee, stated in her memo to Ryckman.
The contents of Gee’s memo were discussed by Ryckman and Corning Mayor Frank Coccho at a press conference Tuesday at Corning City Hall.
Corning city officials last week denied a Freedom of Information request by the Star-Gazette seeking to force the city to release Gee’s memo. The city denied the request but scheduled the press conference to announce the details of the opinion, Ryckman’s office said.
Coccho said the city was moving to ensure all legal requirements regarding the petition and the changes it is proposing are fulfilled. He also said stripping the council of its power in this narrow issue could open the door to similar attempts in the future.
“City Council has been acting proactively to avoid any allegations that we blew it. We want to make sure we did everything legally correct on both sides of the issue,” said Coccho.
The petition and the changes it proposes for Corning City Charter form the latest chapter in the struggle to add fluoride to the city’s water supply.
Although City Council voted in May to fluoridate city water, action has yet to be taken. The issue has surfaced several times over the past 20 years, city officials, proponents and opponents of the measure say.
Supporters of fluoridation say the additive would help improve the dental health of Corning residents who can’t afford proper dental care.
Studies have shown that fluoridated water can reduce tooth decay by about 40 percent, said Thomas Curran, a retired dentist from Elmira. The principal beneficiaries would be children, the poor and the elderly, Curran said, who opposes the referendum.
Furthermore, the cost of fluoridating the city’s water, estimated at $200,000, is far less than the $1.8 million spent annually to provide dental care to city residents who receive public assistance. Curran also said he is dissatisfied with the fact that since a direct referendum on fluoridation isn’t legal, opponents have worded the petition so that city government is stripped of its authority to fluoridate the water.
But that strategy, says Kirk Huttleston of Corning, would take the fluoridation decision out of the hands of a few city officials and put it in the hands of those who would be most affected by it — the city’s residents.
Huttleston, who organized the petition drive, said he has concerns about the proposed cost of the project and fluoride’s long-term health effects.
Fluoride has been linked to increasing the body’s supply of aluminum, Huttleston said, which can lead to conditions such as Parkinson’s disease and attention deficit disorder.
There are easier and less costly ways of realizing fluoride’s benefits to dental health, he said, such as using fluoridated toothpaste rather than drinking fluoridated water.