The May 4 community discussion of water fluoridation was just what the doctor ordered, according to members of the five-person Meadville Area Water Authority board.
In fact, the forum proved so informative that at least one board member already has decided how he will be voting on the issue.
Other members expressed their satisfaction with the forum, the presentations from both sides and the contributions by members of the public, but said they would continue to weigh the evidence and opinions that had been offered.
“What I took away from the presentation is that our customers want to decide and control what they put into their bodies,” board member Hal Tubbs wrote Friday in an email to the Tribune explaining his decision to vote against fluoridation. “They don’t want a fluoride additive forced on them.”
There is a place for fluoride, Tubbs wrote, but dentists’ offices and schools are more appropriate venues than the community water system.
Tubbs cited the comments made by MAWA users following the expert presentations as especially important in swaying his opinion on the controversial topic. Tubbs counted 14 speakers opposed to fluoridation and 11 in favor.
Despite the seemingly comparable totals and an audience at large that other board members saw as evenly divided, Tubbs all but dismissed the 11 Meadville residents who spoke in favor. Six of them, he said, were wearing T-shirts that indicated their affiliation with the pro-fluoridation Meadville Smiles group, and two others were doctors, which he also said linked them to Meadville Smiles. Two of the remaining pro-fluoridation speakers were politicians, Tubbs noted in disregarding their input.
This process of elimination left one remaining pro-fluoride speaker, “perhaps the only independent voice in favor of water fluoridation,” according to Tubbs.
“This tells me that actual customers are against fluoridated water by a count of 14 to one,” Tubbs wrote.
In a follow-up interview, Tubbs said that he was not discounting the opinions of fluoridation proponents simply because of their T-shirts or the fact that they work for the hospital.
“I’m discounting their opinions because they’re associated with the movement to fluoridate,” he said. “I don’t think they were there to learn anything. I think they were there to push their point.
“They’re activists and not just people who were concerned with what’s in the water and wanted to get their questions answered.”
Even if the pro-fluoridation speakers were actual MAWA customers, Tubbs said, they were still outnumbered by speakers against fluoride. Nearly all of those who contributed to the public comments at the meeting, on both sides of the issue, identified themselves as Meadville residents or listed Meadville addresses on the sign-in sheets for speakers.
As for those who did not attend the meeting and who might want to submit comments to board members through email or letters, Tubbs said, “Those voices can continue to write in and say their views, but my mind has been made up from what was what said at the meeting and what has been told to me on the street.”
“There’s four other members” for those people to try to persuade, he added.
Tubbs’ strident position on the issue came in stark contrast to board President Tim Groves and members John Fulmer and Mark Gildea, who each said they would continue to weigh the evidence and consider input from members of the public. All such input is being distributed to each board member, according to Gildea. Dr. Dennis Finton could not be reached for comment on Friday, but he has touted the effectiveness of fluoride in recent months, citing his familiarity with the topic as a result of his experience as a dentist.
For Fulmer, the small selection of speakers at Thursday’s meeting made it difficult to know whether the sample was representative of the population at large. The fact that, unlike Tubbs, he saw both the speakers and audience in general as close to evenly split on the issue made things even more challenging.
“It’s pretty difficult to be put in a position that no matter what, about half of the users are going to be upset,” he said. “I think the entire authority is going to want to digest everything that was presented and see what the next step would be.”
Public input at the meeting and through written comments submitted later is important, according to Gildea, but it should not be the only consideration.
“I’m not going by popular opinion,” he said, suggesting that most audience members at the forum had made up their minds on the issue before attending the meeting. “I’m going by what I think is going to be in the best interest of the community.”
“It’s not just a popular opinion thing,” he added, “it’s weighing all the facts that are available and making an informed decision based on that.”
Groves, like Fulmer and Gildea, saw the audience as evenly divided on the issue and said that he would continue to weigh both the evidence and the comments of MAWA users.
“I would still encourage people to email us or send a letter, whatever is easiest for them,” he said, “now that they’ve heard both presentations.”
One point of agreement among the board members who spoke to the Tribune was the success of the forum itself in providing important information on both sides of the issue and allowing members of the public to have their voices heard.
“I think we really saw Meadville at its best,” Gildea said. “I think the whole thing, you couldn’t have asked for it to go better.”