Tuesday’s marathon discussion at the Collier County commission meeting offered an education on civics, politics, various forms of government and parliamentary procedure. Oh, and fluoride.
While the debate was about whether or not to continue to add fluoride to county-supplied water, it also offered a good look at government in action.
Proponents and opponents of fluoridation flooded the chamber. Some 70 people signed up to speak, many of them touting medical credentials in fields like chiropractic and holistic healing. They were mostly against fluoridation. Others from the dentistry profession were for it.
Paul Connett, a retired chemistry professor and senior adviser to the anti-fluoridation group Fluoride Action Network challenged a proponent of the process to debate him.
Dr. Scott Tomar of the University of Florida College of Dentistry followed him and while it wasn’t technically a debate, he effectively refuted Connett’s arguments, pointing out that decades of research, taken in total, weighs in favor of optimizing the fluoride level in water supplies.
“It’s possible, on any topic, to find studies that agree with your personal bias,” Tomar pointed out.
Connett’s claims about fluoride’s links to thyroid problems and impaired brain development have been, “dismissed, quite frankly,” Tomar said. [Sic: the National Toxicology Program is in the process of evaluating the published literature on “whether exposure to fluoride is associated with effects on neurodevelopment, specifically learning, memory, and cognition.”]
With credentials including a stint as an oral health epidemiologist for the Centers for Disease Control and editor of the Journal of Evidence-Based Dental Practice, Tomar made a compelling case. “As a public health dentist and as a parent, I would not do this if I had any doubt in my mind about the safety and efficacy of it,” he said.
At that point, halfway through what would end up being close to four hours of input, the argument was over. A majority of commissioners were not going to be persuaded to remove fluoride from the water.
But the rest of the discussion wasn’t a waste of time.
It afforded another chance to consider the age-old question of democratic government versus republican government.
Note the small “d” and the small “r.”
Commissioner Georgia Hiller, who is incidentally running for clerk of courts as a Republican (big “R”) suggested the question of fluoridation be placed on the November ballot for everyone to vote on.
Doing so would be in keeping with the spirit of democracy.
But in truth, we aren’t a democracy. We are a republic.
A fundamental difference is that in a democracy, everyone votes on questions of public policy and the majority rules.
In a republic, democratically elected representatives consider laws and policies and then vote, ideally supporting the wishes of the people who elected them.
But since everyone doesn’t vote on every issue, representatives are often left to decide based on their own judgment.
It’s a system preferable to pure democracy for any number of reasons, and the fluoride debate was a good example of one.
Proponents and opponents cited dozens of books and studies totaling hundreds, maybe thousands, of pages. It is doubtful any of the commissioners took the time to read through all of them.
But at the very least, they sat through the hours of points and counterpoints and had the opportunity to judge the credibility of the speakers for themselves.
Voters at large wouldn’t have the time or inclination to determine the validity of Tomar’s statement that fluoride “inhibits demineralization during an acid challenge,” or pass judgment on Conant’s claim that fluoride “switches on G-proteins.”
It is up to elected representatives to weigh those arguments and decide. If they’re at odds with their constituents, they can be turned out of office in the next election.
Hiller is a savvy politician and by demanding a referendum, she taps into a populist mindset that has propelled Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders.
By ultimately voting with the majority even though she clearly disagreed with its direction, she’s in a position to bring the matter up for reconsideration, a parliamentary tactic used every so often by commissioners.
If that’s her intention, she’ll need to move quickly. The Supervisor of Elections office routinely asks commissioners not to place referendums on the November ballot because it’s already long.
The deadline to approve language for the August primary ballot is June 24.
In either case, it doesn’t appear there’s any appetite among the commission majority to bring fluoride to a countywide vote.
Commissioner Penny Taylor made it clear Tuesday. “I do not believe we should pass this off and make grandstand, ‘Let’s send it to the people.’ The buck stops here. We have the responsibility.”
Spoken like a true republican (small “r”).