An effort to have Independence voters decide in November whether to put fluoride in the city’s water died Monday on a tied City Council vote.
With Council Member Charlie Rich absent, the final vote was 3-3 on an ordinance to put the issue on the ballot. Voting in favor were Jason White, Jim Schultz and Mayor Ron Stewart, while Don Reimal, John Perkins and Renee Paluka voted no.
About 25 citizens who oppose fluoridation attended the meeting with tape over their mouths and signs to protest Stewart’s gag order on citizens’ discussing fluoride at the Council Chambers podium.
After the meeting, council members spoke about their reasons for voting the way they did.
“The voters of Independence are smart enough to decide what’s the best way to handle that,” said Schultz, who wanted the issue to go to the people, “My vote was not for or against. My vote was for the rights of the people to choose on a health issue.”
Perkins said he was against the issue totally.
“I didn’t feel that putting in fluoride that’s produced from a phosphate fertilizer plant would be appropriate to contaminate drinking water,” Perkins said, adding he did not like the way the debate had been handled. “To stifle the dialogue at the very onset was troubling to me … I’m glad it’s done. I hope it doesn’t come back for a long period of time.”
A coalition of local dentists began lobbying for adding fluoride two years ago, said coalition member Dr. Kenneth Weinand. His group, supported by the state of Missouri and backed by the American Dental Association, cited problematic tooth decay as the main reason to propose fluoridation.
Opposing viewpoints ranged from health and safety standards to freedom to choose one’s own medication.
“Some of the best water in the world is going to stay that way,” said John Pennell, who was a frequent speaker on the issue.
Other opponents said they do not think fluoride is dead and buried.
Neither does Weinand, who first pitched the fluoride initiative as an ordinance before the debate opened up the possibility of a public election. He said the coalition will have to regroup this week and decide what to do.
“I am very disappointed in this council,” Weinand said. “I thought for sure if they didn’t want to do an ordinance they would have put it to a vote. I guess they don’t want the people to decide.”
Citizens have spent months debating the issue during the public comments period at council meetings. The city also conducted a public hearing in November.
Those in favor say fluoride at 1 part per million is a cost-effective and safe way to battle tooth decay, while opponents say fluoride causes adverse health effects.
The Independence Water Department serves the approximately 120,000 residents of Independence plus about 130,000 people down the line in Eastern Jackson County, which includes much of the rural area as well as the cities of Buckner, Grain Valley and Oak Grove. Blue Springs gets half of its water from Independence and half from Kansas City, which fluoridates its supply.
Retiring Independence Water Department Director Randy Vest summed up what many people have been thinking, during his retirement speech to the council at the beginning of Monday’s meeting. Vest is retiring after 37 years of helping to maintain the public water supply.
“I’m very proud of our water in Independence,” Vest said. “Our customers brag on it. We brag on it … I’m just so thankful we have the source. I want to make sure in the future you protect that source.”