Calling it safe and effective, the Joplin City Council voted 6-2 Tuesday to order that fluoride be put in the city’s water supply.

“This is going to help the safety and welfare of Joplin citizens, especially children,” said Councilman Richard Russell, who voted in favor of the measure.

Fluoride opponents attending the meeting vowed to collect signatures to force a special election on the issue. Frederick King, a longtime opponent of fluoridation, has said he would pursue a referendum to block the ordinance. The petitioners would have to collect signatures equal to 15 percent of the number of registered voters in the most recent general election to force the referendum. That number was not immediately available.
Councilmen Gary Shaw and Jon Tupper voted against the ordinance, saying they thought fluoridation should be decided by the voters, not the council.

“I as a councilman will not impose my will on the people of Joplin,” Shaw said.

Shaw said he gave his son fluoride drops when he was young — and would do it again — but he thought there was enough evidence presented by both sides that the voters should have the final say.

“I think it boils down to the fact that if it was a life-threatening situation we were being asked to decide, I would take my stand as a councilman,” Shaw told the Globe. “But since this (fluoridation) is not that kind of decision, and is turning into a matter of opinion, it should be a vote of the people.”

Tupper agreed, saying, “Anything this divisive should be decided by the voters. I believe we should do what the citizens survey told us.” He referred to a city-commissioned survey on fluoridation that showed Joplin residents favored fluoride but wanted the matter decided in an election.

Councilman Guy Palmieri said he had looked at documentation on both sides of the issue and had concluded that fluoridation is safe. Palmieri said he found that courts have ruled that fluoridation is not unconstitutional and is not considered “forced medication.”

Palmieri said he did not like being told that he was depriving residents of their right to decide for themselves.

“I spent 30 years in the service to protect all of your individual rights,” he said. “I’m very sensitive about that.”

Resident Jeffery Johnson said the council did not take the opposition to fluoride seriously. He said the council met informally with the proponents of fluoridation just before voting last month to advance the ordinance.

“I don’t think you had an informal meeting with those who opposed it, even just to hear what they had to say,” Johnson told the council.

Johnson also pointed out that the council members had bottled water sitting in front of them.

“You’re not even drinking your own city water,” he said.

Roy Bollin, a Joplin dentist, also spoke to the council, saying it should “look at the stature” of those in favor of fluoridation. He said opponents were “aimed at creating confusion.”

This isn’t the first time that Joplin has debated the fluoride issue. In 1960, three Joplin dentists presented the fluoride issue to the City Council. In an election on Nov. 8, voters rejected fluoride by a vote of 8,256 “no” to 6,758 “yes.” King, a Harvard graduate and owner of a wholesale lumber company, was a vocal opponent.

In 1987, the City Council voted 7-2 to order Missouri-American Water Co. to add fluoride to the city’s water. King’s group, the Joplin Pure Water Association, collected enough signatures on a petition to force a special election on the issue.

That prompted the council to reverse its decision. A month later, a group called the Joplin Fluoride for Progress Committee circulated its own petition. This time, it was the proponents of fluoridation who were asking for a vote. They did not collect enough signatures by the deadline to get the measure on the ballot for a presidential primary.