NORTH ATTLEBORO – It appears fluoride will not be placed on the ballot as a referendum question, but town officials say they expect voters will weigh in on the issue when picking a candidate in the board of health race.
A majority of selectmen said Thursday they do not favor putting a non-binding referendum on the ballot, saying the question would not change fluoridation of the town’s water.
Town counsel has ruled that since voters approved fluoridation in November 2000, only voters can decide to remove it. However, state law does not contain a mechanism for voting out fluoride once it has been approved.
The board of health is currently suing the town’s department of public works in an effort to halt fluoridation, which a majority of the board opposes.
“I’m not a big fan of nonbinding questions in general. I think if people are asked to cast a vote, there should be consequences to it,” Selectman William Moffitt said. “The results of the question wouldn’t solve anything. Whomever lost would question the legitimacy of the question.
“But even if the question isn’t on the ballot, the issue will definitely be on the ballot,” he added.
Moffitt was referring to the contested race for a three-year seat on the board of health. Incumbent Diane Battistello, who is opposed to fluoridation, is facing a challenge from John Donohue, who supports the additive.
Selectmen Chairman John Rhyno had suggested selectmen consider placing a non-binding question on the ballot to poll voters about fluoridation. He hoped the ballot question might convince the board of health to drop its lawsuit against the town.
“One of the things I hate to see is the town spending thousands and thousands of dollars for legal fees that could be spent for other things,” Rhyno said.
Moffitt said fluoride was approved by 59 percent of the town’s voters at a presidential election in which more than 12,000 residents cast ballots. A town election does not receive as large a turnout.
“We’ve been hearing a lot of noise, but it hasn’t come from a whole lot of people. I don’t see where there is a legitimate issue for the town to get involved,” Moffitt said.
Battistello said the outcry about fluoride is not coming from just two members of the board of health.
“It’s increasingly coming from residents,” she said.
Battistello said she attempted to set up a fluoridation seminar at Sturdy Memorial Hospital in Attleboro to talk about anti-fluoridation research, but the hospital was not interested.
“It’s very sad when the medical community is not open to hear about the topic,” she said.
Donohue said he did not see that a ballot question would bring any resolution to the issue.
“This is a no-win situation for the town,” he said. “I’ve been doing some research, and 122 (Massachusetts) cities and towns have fluoride. Attleboro has been fluoridated since 1973, and other towns have had fluoride since the 1953. At no time have we heard public health officials there saying fluoride is a bad thing.”
Selectmen said it appears the only way to halt fluoridation would be to appeal to the state Legislature for a special act that would allow another binding vote.
“The only way to solve this is for a home rule special action statue,” Town Administrator Judith Robbins said. “Those who oppose what is currently going on would be better served finding a way to approach the state.”