VERNON TOWNSHIP — Some of the passions evident at the community discussion of fluoridation earlier this month spilled over into deliberations at the Meadville Area Water Authority monthly meeting on Wednesday.
By the time the spirited discussion was over, three board members indicated how they intend to vote, two had wondered aloud whether the board could or should vote on fluoridation immediately, one had equated fluoridation to tyranny and, finally, board members decided on a time and location for their official vote.
The vote on whether to fluoridate the water provided by the authority will come in a special meeting at 10 a.m. June 14.
Board member Hal Tubbs will be unable to attend the usual monthly meeting on June 21. Although he could attend the meeting via teleconference, board President Tim Groves suggested that the significance of the issue warranted holding a special meeting so the vote could be made with all members present. The fluoridation vote will be the only topic addressed at the meeting.
Instead of the close quarters of the MAWA board room, where meetings are usually held, the fluoridation vote will be at the Lew Davies Community Center, 1034 Park Ave., to accommodate interested members of the public who might like to attend.
Attorney Ted Watts advised board members that they need not allow public comment at the meeting, citing MAWA’s public comment policy. The policy affords the board “the right to refuse permission to any individual to speak at an open meeting to address the same subject discussed at a previous meeting.”
The back and forth debate Wednesday began mundanely enough with Groves asking members when they would like to hold the meeting. Almost immediately, the discussion took a sharp turn with former police chief Tubbs proposing that all MAWA customers be sent a postcard asking their position on fluoridation that could be mailed back to MAWA to give board members a sense of popular sentiment on the issue.
Tubbs announced his opposition to fluoridation in an email to the Tribune less than 12 hours after the community discussion on May 4. Though some of his fellow board members described the crowd at the forum as split in a roughly even fashion on the issue, Tubbs largely dismissed the fluoridation supporters with connections to the Meadville Smiles advocacy group, Meadville Medical Center, Allegheny College and government agencies.
Tubbs’ proposal to send questionnaires to MAWA customers failed to come up for a vote when none of the other board members would second the motion.
“So nobody wants to see what customers think about this?” Tubbs asked.
Board member Mark Gildea pointed out that such a plan would leave out the voices of the many people who use MAWA water but who do not necessarily pay MAWA bills and that commercial customers representing many consumers of MAWA water would be underrepresented.
“It would be a huge expense to find out what we already know — it’s a very contentious issue,” board member John Fulmer said.
While the proposal failed, the discussion continued, with board member Dennis Finton, a dentist who has previously touted the benefits of fluoridation, citing his personal experience treating children with extensive dental problems that fluoridation might have helped to alleviate or avoid.
“It’s so disheartening to think that we could do something that could be so much better for these children — and it’s safe,” Finton said. “I just have to say it as a practicing dentist who’s been in the trenches that nobody in this room has done or seen, and I wear my heart on my sleeve when those kids come in my office.”
In response, Tubbs cited his own life experience and the health of his teeth despite growing up without fluoridated water. He also questioned the credibility of the evidence and sources used to support fluoridation.
“You can’t trust a government saying, ‘Oh, this is fine,’” he said. “I’m telling you, there is no worse tyranny than to force a man to pay for what he does not want merely because you think it would be good for him.”
In apparent frustration, Tubbs proposed that the board simply vote on the issue immediately. Gildea later asked whether an immediate vote was possible as well. Watts recommended against such a move given the fact that the board had already announced its intentions not to vote on fluoridation at Wednesday’s meeting.
Fulmer rejected Tubbs’ criticism of the evidence in favor of fluoridation, but then said he agreed with Tubbs’ position on the issue, though for very different reasons.
“I think we should look at the sole purpose of the water authority, and that’s to supply safe, clean drinking water,” he said. “And if there’s not a majority of the customer base that really wants the additional fluoride, then we shouldn’t have it.”
With half the user population likely to strenuously disagree with their decision, it would better to err on the side on not adding fluoride to the water, Fulmer said.
As the fiery discussion turned back to the minutiae of when and where to hold the meeting, it seemed apparent that Fulmer and Tubbs would be voting against fluoridation while Finton would be in favor. Groves and Gildea have not yet publicly indicated their positions.
In fact, Groves said, he was not likely to make up his mind about fluoridation until June 14.