Pretend that your boss ordered you to do something.
Now, pretend you ignored that order — for eight years.
And you not only ignored the order, but you kept it hidden from your boss that entire time.
What would you expect?
You would expect to be fired, of course.
We expect nothing less should happen to the leaders of the North Attleboro Department of Public Works.
In 2000, 57 percent of North Attleboro voters backed a referendum authorizing the town to fluoridate public water. The vote came after a hard-fought battle between public health advocates and dental professionals against opponents who voiced long-debunked theories (“It’s poison!” “It’s a Communist plot!”) about the substance.
In short, voters heard the pros and cons and voted solidly in favor of fluoridation, which has been shown to strengthen teeth and greatly reduce cavities, especially when ingested by children.
And this was no low-turnout local election. More than 10,000 voters cast a ballot in the same election that pitted George W. Bush against Al Gore for the presidency.
Fluoridation began in North Attleboro in 2002, but after a few years the DPW began running into problems with the machine designed to inject the substance into the water. As a result, only one of the town’s four water wells, at the Whiting Street pumping station, has been fluoridating public water since 2011.
The result has been that most of the water the public has been drinking has had less than the optimal levels of fluoride called for by state regulations. Some consumers have received no fluoride.
What did the DPW do about it? Nothing.
There was no attempt to fix the problem by approaching town leaders for more money.
There wasn’t even an attempt to tell the public or town officials about the issue.
It wasn’t until August when Public Health Nurse Anne Marie Fleming noticed in the water quality report the DPW is required to make public every three years that fluoride levels were below optimal levels. The health department, which initiated the move toward fluoridation 20 years ago, then persuaded the DPW to run a small legal ad to notify the public.
This is an astonishing breach of public trust and a slap in the face to voters.
The DPW has no excuse.
Nearly two-thirds of Massachusetts’ 6.4 million residents consume fluoridated water, according to the state Department of Public Health. Among those are Attleboro (since 1973), Mansfield (1997) and Seekonk (1952).
If 139 other cities and towns can do it, why can’t North Attleboro?
To our knowledge, no other community has encountered an insurmountable issue fluoridating water. The problem should have been fixed, and fixed promptly.
What’s worse — far worse — is the coverup.
DPW officials deliberately hid the fact that they failed to comply with a voter mandate for the past eight years, and only did so when other town officials demanded it. To add salt to the wounds, the DPW is now suggesting another referendum to end fluoridation, a suggestion that should be quickly dismissed by North Attleboro’s newly elected town council.
It’s bad enough DPW officials compromised the dental health of town residents and misled parents who thought their children were getting properly fluoridated water.
What’s far worse is how they treated their bosses, the taxpayers. To brazenly ignore a voter mandate is a terminable offense. We hope this is done, and done quickly.
Public Works Director Mark Hollowell says he bears full responsibility for this fluoride fiasco. He should resign immediately or face firing.
The actions of the North Attleboro Board of Public Works also must be reviewed.
The DPW is overseen by a separately-elected board that in 2011 did not report to the town administrator or to the board of selectmen.
Was the board aware of the problem? Did members push Hollowell to correct the situation — or to ignore it?
No one has those answers now, and it will prove far more difficult to see justice served when it comes to board members.
But there can be no uncertainty here: The voters are in charge of their town. They wanted fluoride in their water.
Their will should never have been ignored.