A measure to fluoridate Bellingham’s water supply will probably appear on the ballot despite allegations from an opposition group that the measure isn’t legal.
Rolf Beckhusen, a Bellingham attorney representing Bellingham Citizens Against Forced Fluoride, wrote to the city attorney and the City Council Monday, saying the November ballot initiative should be tested in court before going to the ballot.
City officials apparently disagree.
“I don’t anticipate any response from the city on that,” said Malcolm Fleming, the city’s chief administrative officer. “It’s very speculative to, at this point, take any action until the voters have made a decision on the issue.”
Fleming referred additional comment to City Attorney Joan Hoisington, who could not be reached Tuesday.
The initiative will be placed automatically on the ballot today, 30 days after the City Council took no action on the measure when it came before them.
Beckhusen said the fluoridation initiative is on shaky legal ground because it relies on a $600,000 grant from the Washington Dental Service Foundation to pay for the equipment.
But the city doesn’t have any jurisdiction over the Seattle-based foundation, he said, and passing the initiative doesn’t legally require the agency to give the city the money.
“There’s some authority saying you can’t have an agreement with a private party as a contingent funding mechanism for something of this nature,” Beckhusen said.
The foundation has pledged $600,000 to cover startup costs should Bellingham voters approve the initiative in November, said Sean Pickard, the foundation’s governmental relations manager. The amount is based on an engineering study of what it would cost to begin fluoridating Bellingham’s water, Pickard said.
The foundation gave similar grants to Yakima, Pasco and Lummi Nation when they started fluoridating their water supplies, Pickard said.
Yakima’s fluoridation was the result of a public vote, but no one there questioned the legality of the grant’s connection with the proposal, Pickard said.
“Essentially, we’ve put the offer on the table and allowed the decision-makers to decide the question,” Pickard said.
Curt Smith, a retired Bellingham dentist and co-chairman of Bellingham Families for Fluoride, said an attorney studied the initiative before the group started collecting petition signatures.
“Certainly it’s a concern,” he said of the legal challenge. “But on the other hand, as far as I know, we’re all right. We’ll wait and hear if there’s an opinion otherwise.”
Beckhusen also told the council that the city charter requires voter initiatives to confine themselves to the city’s legislative, not administrative, powers. Public water supplies are regulated by the state, he said, which makes them an administrative function of cities.
And fluoridation is already provided for under state law, Beckhusen said, so it’s only up to city councils to decide whether to implement it.
Bellingham City Councilor John Watts said Mayor Mark Asmundson told the council in executive session Monday there was nothing in Beckhusen’s letter that compelled the city to act. Asmundson could not be reached for comment Tuesday.
But Watts said the city previously has asked the courts to rule on the legality of other ballot measures proposed by the electorate seeking to change water or sewer rates.
State law says utility rates are the domain of the City Council, and the city charter prohibits initiatives that could impact the city budget, Watts said.
If the fluoridation measure passes, Watts said, the council will have to approve increases to water rates.