Willard Fraser, mayor of Billings for much of the 1960s, was never known for keeping his opinions to himself.
In April 1965, the Billings City Council had passed an ordinance authorizing fluoridation of the city water supply, and opponents gathered enough petition signatures to force a public vote on the issue. Unless the council called a special election, though, the question would not appear on the ballot until the city election in April 1967.
Fraser, an ardent supporter of fluoridation, didn’t want the debate to drag on endlessly, and he didn’t want the fluoride vote to coincide with City Council elections.
In a letter to council members, Fraser warned them that if they didn’t call a special election, “it will be the council that will be under fire, and it is the councilmen’s lives – as well as their families – that will be made miserable by these fanatically ignorant and misinformed anti-fluoridationists.”
Fraser lost the argument, and fluoridation supporters lost the election, which was held on April 3, 1967. The vote was 9,035 to 5,965.
The issue surfaced again 15 years later, when the City Council passed an ordinance to fluoridate the city’s water supply. But with memories of 1967 in mind, the council made the ordinance contingent on a vote of public approval.
The results were much closer this time, but on Nov. 2, 1982, fluoridation was defeated by a 555-vote margin, 9,879 to 9,324.
Twenty years later, it’s time for Round 3.
A resolution directing the Public Utilities Department to begin introducing fluoride into the city water supply will be voted on by the City Council Monday night.
The main question is whether the council will follow the example set in 1965 and merely authorize fluoridation, or follow the 1982 example and call for a public referendum on the issue.
Mayor Chuck Tooley said he’s fairly sure he has a majority in favor of fluoridation, but “I really don’t have a handle on whether this will be referred to the people or not.”
So far, Tooley said, all the passionate arguments have been put forth by opponents of fluoridation.
“We need to have a good, strong showing from advocates of fluoridation at the public hearing for this thing to move forward,” he said.
Lora Schultz, a public health nurse and the health coordinator at Head Start, is chairwoman of the Fluoride Action Campaign Effort, which was formed after a “dental summit” held last fall to deal with what was described as a dental-care crisis in Billings.
She said her group hasn’t spent much time lobbying the council because it has been focusing on public awareness and “educating the community before the alarmists got to town.”
“It’s been pretty effortless because there has been such broad-based support,” she said, pointing to endorsements from, among others, several Billings PTAs, the School Board, both hospitals, the Public Utilities Board, Celebrate Billings, the Montana Dental Association, the Montana Dental Hygienists Society and more than 100 local doctors and dentists.
Proponents say the optimal level of fluoride is considered to be 0.7 to 1.2 parts per million. The natural fluoride level in the Yellowstone River, the source of city water, is 0.4 parts per million. Proponents say fluoridating water is the most effective way to prevent tooth decay in people of all ages.
The resolution that the council will consider instructs the Public Utilities Department to bring the level of fluoride in city water up to 1 part per million. It would cost $50,000 in initial expenses and about $35,000 a year after that.
Schultz said she hopes the council will listen to the preponderance of informed opinion, as opposed to “a very small, vocal group” of opponents.
Ward 2 City Councilman Dave Brown said he plans to ask that the issue be put to a vote of the people.
“I think that almost everybody believes that it’s a hot enough issue that it ought to go to the voters,” he said.
Sara Rollins, director of the Billings office of the Cancer Prevention Coalition, is one of the leaders of the anti-fluoridation effort. She said there are too many risks associated with elevated levels of fluoride for the city to introduce it into everyone’s drinking water.
“The real issue is educating people” and letting them decide whether they want to increase their own intake of fluoride, she said. “That’s what informed consent is all about.”
Rollins said the Cancer Prevention Coalition, based in Chicago, hasn’t taken a stand on fluoridation. She also said that while fluoride hasn’t been proven to be a carcinogen, it might be an indirect cause of cancer.
If the council does vote in favor of a resolution authorizing fluoridation, Rollins said, she’s not sure what action opponents will take, though a petition calling for a vote on the issue is likely.
To force a vote, opponents would have to gather the signatures of 15 percent of the registered voters in the city of Billings. Yellowstone County Election Administrator Duane Winslow said 45,373 people were registered to vote in the 2001 election, which means 6,806 signatures would be needed.
But he wasn’t sure if opponents would need 15 percent of currently registered voters. If they do, they would need 7,170 signatures because 45,794 people are registered now.
Clayton Fiscus, a real estate agent and member of Montanans for Better Government who has led several petition drives in Billings, said he’s ready to gather signatures if the council approves the resolution Monday night. He said it would easier if the council simply voted against the resolution.
“It’s an issue that’s been voted down twice and it shouldn’t have to be voted down again,” he said.
Before the City Council votes Monday night on a resolution authorizing fluoridation of the city water supply, there will be a public hearing on the issue.
The meeting will begin at 7:30 in council chambers on the second floor of City Hall, 210 N. 27th St., but because the resolution is the last of more than a dozen items on the council agenda, there’s no telling what time the hearing will start.
As with all public hearings, people wishing to speak will be limited to three minutes each.
Before the regular meeting, the council will meet at 6:30 as the Committee of the Whole and will listen to opponents and supporters of fluoridation. At that pre-meeting, each side will have 10 minutes to present its case.
Speaking for the opponents will be Tom Nelson, a resident of Billings who fought fluoridation in New York and Utah. Supporters will have three speakers: Lora Schultz, a public health nurse and chairwoman of the Fluoride Action Campaign Effort; Dr. Doug Moore, medical director of the Yellowstone City-County Health Department; and Dr. Scott Manhart, a dentist, periodontist and member of the Dental Task Force.