Frustration boiled over on both sides at the end of Wednesday’s Meadville City Council meeting as opponents of fluoridation once again aired their grievances only to be told that council meetings are the wrong forum for doing so.
Five fluoridation opponents addressed council in what soon became a contentious public comment period at the conclusion of the meeting. At one point, Mayor LeRoy Stearns banged his gavel repeatedly to restore order as city attorney Gary Alizzeo and Chris Knapp, leader of the anti-fluoridation group Clean Water Meadville, talked over each other, each asking the other not to interrupt as both tried to make their points.
“The issue that you are banging the drum on right now is not properly before these individuals,” Alizzeo said, referring to the council members Knapp was addressing, just as he had addressed them in July and multiple times over the past several years. “Despite how loud you want to be, how repetitive you want to be, how attacking on individual authority board members like you were the last time you spoke, which was completely inappropriate —”
“May I finish, Mr. Mayor?” Knapp interjected.
“This is not the forum for banging the drum on the fluoride issue. The forum is with the Meadville Area Water Authority,” Alizzeo continued.
“The water board would not hear us,” Knapp contended, arguing that MAWA’s public comment policy only allowed people to comment on topics that were scheduled for board meetings. “It had to be on the agenda. It was never on the agenda.”
“We’ve been blocked out (of MAWA meetings) for four years,” he told Stearns. The mayor had repeatedly asked the previous four speakers if they had attended any MAWA meetings.
Tim Groves was among those listening to the criticisms of fluoridation specifically and the water authority generally. He attends council meetings in his role as city finance director and also chairs MAWA meetings as the board president. Groves, who cast one of three votes in favor of fluoridation, did not respond to public comments during the meeting.
Afterward, Groves confirmed that fluoridation — despite being the focus of intense public interest — had not appeared on the agenda of any board meetings over the past year. During that time, the authority’s operations committee met with an official from Erie Water Works to see what could be learned from Erie’s approach to the fluoridation issue 15 years ago.
Operations committee meetings are not open to the public. A separate committee, consisting of Groves and fellow board member Mark Gildea, also met to make plans for MAWA’s public forum on fluoridation, which was eventually held in early May.
However, Groves also contradicted Knapp’s depiction of the authority’s public comment policies.
“We never wanted people to not stop by our meetings,” he told the Tribune. “We have the same policy that the city does — essentially, if there’s something on the agenda or if there’s anything pending that could come up, people can address the board about it.”
Groves said his understanding of the policy was based on conversations with the authority’s attorney. The public is allowed to address topics like fluoridation that may come before the board even if they are not on the agenda for a meeting, Groves said.
According to the policy, which is available online at mawa.us, “the Board shall provide an opportunity at each open meeting of the Board for ratepayers to comment on matters of concern, official action or deliberation before the Board prior to official action by the Board.”
Groves also added a disclaimer.
“I can’t say what our former project managers might have told some of those people,” he said. Five men have occupied the MAWA project manager position since Don Nold retired in June 2015. “I don’t know what they told those people or if in fact they told them something different.”
Groves also emphasized that MAWA officials had gone to great lengths to include Knapp and his organization as well as representatives from the pro-fluoridation Meadville Smiles group in planning for the public forum in May. The meeting, which lasted more than three hours, offered opportunities for experts from both sides to present their arguments and also enabled dozens of community members to express their opinions.
The board also allowed public comments before its special meeting June 14 to vote on fluoridation. Eighteen people addressed the board that day, including three of those who spoke to council Wednesday.
While Knapp criticized what he saw as the MAWA board’s efforts to “insulate themselves from us,” several other residents called on council to do something about what they saw as the lack of accountability of the men appointed to the authority’s board. City Council members appoint board members but, as Alizzeo pointed out, council members have no power to direct the decisions of board members once they have been appointed.
Stearns echoed Alizzeo’s explanation following the public comments.
“We can’t do anything,” he said, emphasizing that council had decided to allow the comment session even though they were not required to. “You’re talking to the wrong group. We do not make that decision.
“I don’t want anybody leaving this room thinking this council doesn’t listen to its citizens — we do,” he added. “I allowed you to speak.”
Several residents also called for MAWA to survey customers by including an insert in the monthly bills sent to customers. MAWA board member Hal Tubbs raised such a possibility in February and formally proposed it in May, but the proposal failed to come up for a vote when none of the other board members would second the motion.
As audience members continued to voice their dissatisfaction with the MAWA board and council’s inability to exercise influence over it, Stearns again stated the council’s impotence with regard to authority decisions.
“You’re preaching to the choir,” he told them.
“Well, maybe it’s time for a new choir,” fluoride opponent Anne Furno responded.