Unless it cleans up its blatant conflicts of interest, Hamilton City Council’s fluoridation tribunal will be leaking credibility like a sieve.
Despite careful plans designed by staff to maximise citizen participation and fairness in council’s public consultation and hearings process, four councillors with blatant conflicts of interest will be fully involved when it comes down to deliberations and a final binding council vote on the controversial water treatment programme – unless council takes appropriate preventive steps.
Pippa Mahood, Martin Gallagher and Ewan Wilson – in addition to their positions at HCC, are also elected members of the Waikato District Health Board.
A fourth councillor, Gordon Chesterman, resigned from his DHB job early this triennium after sitting two DHB terms.
The problem is the Waikato District Health Board on which the three HCC councillors serve is categorically in favour of continued fluoridation of Hamilton’s drinking water.
Like other district health boards in New Zealand, the Waikato DHB is in fact required to support fluoridation of public water supplies and provide advice on its purported benefits whenever the practice surfaces as a significant public issue.
Unlike the DHB’s role on other health care issues and policies, it has no leeway when it comes to fluoridation advice.
While generally perceived as a neutral ‘honest broker’ on most issues, the DHB is an active lobby group when it comes to fluoride.
The Waikato DHB will likely present materials at the HCC tribunal in late May in support of continued addition of fluoride and urge continued use of the chemical (hydrofluorosilicic acid) here.
And the councillors’ conflict of interest problem on fluoride runs deeper.
Besides being full board members, Crs Mahood, Gallagher and Wilson all sit on the DHB community and public health advisory committee. The committee’s stated role is to advise the full board on existing policies and potential policy changes, including issues like fluoridation in Hamilton. Cr Chesterman, until December 2010, chaired that DHB committee.
While the councillors have not been advertising their conflict of interest problem, the question has been raised behind closed doors at the Waikato DHB and HCC and the councillors know something is wrong.
At a community and public health committee meeting in November, 2011, according to published minutes, both Gallagher and Mahood declared conflicts and indicated “their intention not to participate” in a fluoridation policy agenda item, specifically citing their decision-making roles at HCC. There is no mention whether Wilson participated or not, but his situation is identical.
Wearing her HCC councillor hat, Mahood was reported early this year as having “concerns” as to whether she can properly vote on Hamilton’s fluoridation issue, specifically due to her conflict of interest as a DHB member. Her concerns would apply equally to Gallagher and Wilson.
Although less obvious, Chesterman has a similar conflict, having until recently chaired the committee responsible for maintaining and promoting the DHB’s pro-fluoridation policy.
According to a published report, the deputy mayor says the Ministry of Health should make the fluoridation decision.
Since the MOH is the main architect and proponent of fluoridation programmes in New Zealand, Chesterman’s statement ought to rule him out doubly as an unbiased tribunal participant and decider.
At the most recent HCC meeting on February 28, staff and councillors reviewed their fluoridation tribunal rules. There was some discussion of “potential conflicts of interest”, although no decisions on the matter were rendered.
Of course, the ongoing charade in New Zealand local government is that councillors at city/district and regional levels can fake their neutrality and “open minds” in advance of contentious votes to insulate themselves against charges of “bias” and legal challenges. (Witness the infamous Waikato Regional Council velodrome farce).
But outright conflict of interest is something else.
You don’t need a degree in public policy, law or ethics to know that certain Hamilton councillors have undeniable conflicts on the fluoridation question and simply ought not to participate.
Unless Crs Mahood, Wilson, Gallagher and Chesterman remove themselves completely from the decision-making process, the fluoridation tribunal process will be as tainted as Hamilton’s water – and on shaky legal ground.
Geoffrey Robinson and Reihana Robinson comment regularly on local government, public policy and environmental issues.