The veto stands.
After nearly two hours of public comment, Erie City Council narrowly failed to override Mayor Rick Filippi’s veto of the Safe Drinking Water Act, an ordinance that would have stopped any chemical, including fluoride, from being added to the city’s water supply.
(NOTE from FAN: It is incorrect to say that the Safe Drinking Water Act would have “stopped any chemical” from being added to the water. Rather, it would have stopped any chemical which does not treat the water. Thus, chlorine would still be administered under the ordinance, as chlorine treats the water. Fluoride, of course, does not, and it would have been banned.)
Council voted 4-3 against the veto. A two-thirds majority, or five votes on the seven-member City Council, were needed to overturn Filippi’s decision. The failure to override potentially clears the way for the Erie City Water Authority to proceed with plans to fluoridate in November.
Nearly 100 people, nearly all against fluoride, filed into council chambers to hear the vote following a brief recess after public comments were heard.
Upon seeing the result, one outraged fluoride opponent shouted, “See you in court.” Another pointed to the seven-member panel and said, “Remember them at election time.”
City Council President James N. Thompson and councilmen Mario Bagnoni, James Casey and Ian Murray all voted to override the veto. Councilwoman Rubye Jenkins-Husband, who initially voted in support of the ordinance Oct. 2., and councilmen Mel Witherspoon and Joe Borgia voted against overriding the veto. “I can’t believe they’re doing this,” said Tajha Keenan, a 31-year-old mother who has spoken out against fluoridation at several council meetings.
“I guess every citizen here doesn’t make a difference. No one can touch the Water Authority. What else can be done? This was our only recourse,” she said, fighting back tears.
Had the veto been overturned, council planned to take the authority to Erie Common Pleas Court if it continued with the fluoridation.
“It’s not over,” said Emily Conaway, a Gannon University student who has also attended several council meetings to speak against fluoride. “I don’t know what’s next, but I know it isn’t over.”
Jenkins-Husband, considered the swing vote on the issue, said additional research helped change her mind. Because a Safe Drinking Water Act already exists at the state and federal levels, a local act was unnecessary, she said.
“I can’t say it came down to me,” Jenkins-Husband said. “We’re a seven-member council.”
Borgia, who is against fluoridation, said he voted not to override the veto because the Safe Drinking Water Act doesn’t specifically address fluoride.
“I know if we went to court, we’d lose this battle,” he said after the vote. “The way this is written is ambiguous as hell. It would be done forever if we took it to court.”
Instead, Borgia said he would research whether a petition drive could put the issue on the primary ballot in May, an effort that hasn’t worked in the past.
Witherspoon, too, said he might have voted to override the veto if it had specifically addressed fluoride.
“Sure it’s a fluoride issue,” he said. “No question. But it wasn’t spelled out. If it’s specific, it gives it power and allows the judge to deal with a specific issue. People shouldn’t be upset. You win some and you lose some.”
Casey said his support for a veto override wasn’t an easy decision.
“This wasn’t instant. This was after listening to months of people talking, and I thought this was in the best interest of the city,” he said.
Thompson said he would have liked to let a third party settle the debate.
“I’m disappointed in the sense that a resolution would have been reached in court,” he said. “This is going to fester and the people who have been coming here to voice their opinions aren’t going to be satisfied. I would have really liked to see it move to court.”
Bagnoni, who has long led the charge against fluoridation, had no comment after the vote.
In vetoing the ordinance Monday, Filippi called it vague and ambiguous, and said it stepped on the power of the autonomous Erie City Water Authority. For that reason, he said, the ordinance would have been unenforceable, a concern shared by several council members and deputy City Solicitor Larry Meredith.
“We are very pleased that council supported the veto, recognizing its limitations and the fact that is essentially an unenforceable ordinance,” said Tina Mengine, Filippi’s spokeswoman.
Murray said council may still pursue legal action against the authority on the basis it is violating its lease with the city by fluoridating the water.
“We fought the good fight,” Murray said.
“I knew it was going to be 4-3 since the day of the veto. This is defeated, but the one thing I’ve learned in politics is that when you lose, you move on. I don’t regret for one minute the effort I’ve put into fighting fluoridation. I really believe with all my heart that the day will come when fluoride is banned from drinking water.”