A group of Pierce County residents is sponsoring an initiative and petition drive to force a public vote before water suppliers can put fluoride in their drinking water.

The move derives from last year’s decision by the Tacoma-Pierce County Health Board to order the county’s larger water purveyors to fluoridate their water. The health board officials said fluoride in drinking water prevents and controls the spread of tooth decay and related disease.

“This initiative is about our rights as communities, as voters, to make decisions,” said Marianne Lincoln, a Spanaway activist who says she is allergic to fluoride. “It is not about whether or not fluoride is good or bad.

“Meanwhile, lawsuits filed by local water suppliers against the health board, challenging the fluoridation order, have moved up to the state Supreme Court.

The high court is expected to decide in June whether to hear the case. A Pierce County Superior Court judge ruled in favor of the health board in February, supporting its broad power to regulate and supervise public health, as defined by state law. Opponents appealed the decision.

Lincoln’s group filed a “Community Choice Initiative” with the Pierce County auditor last week. The county prosecutor’s office is drafting a ballot title for the countywide initiative.

Once the ballot title is final, the group will have 120 days to collect 27,090 signatures needed to put the measure on the ballot, said Pierce County Auditor Pat McCarthy.

Lincoln said she has about 50 people she can count on being on the street to collect the necessary signatures. If Lincoln’s group is successful, an election could occur sometime next year.

This is the latest challenge to the health board’s fluoridation order for water systems that serve more than 5,000 customers.

The order affects 14 water suppliers serving 238,000 people throughout the county, including those in Lakewood, Puyallup, Sumner, Edgewood, Bonney Lake, Milton, Steilacoom, Parkland and Spanaway.

Some water suppliers agreed to follow the order. Others didn’t and fought it in court.

After losing in Superior Court, six of the original eight plaintiffs appealed the case: the Lakewood Water District; the City of Bonney Lake;and four nonprofit water companies – including Fruitland Mutual Water Co., Mountain View-Edgewood Water Co., Spanaway Water Co. and Summit Water & Supply Co.

Parkland Light & Water Co. and a residents’ group, Citizens Opposing Fluoridation in Pierce County, dropped their lawsuits.

The Lakewood Water District skipped the Court of Appeals and appealed straight to the state Supreme Court, citing urgency as a reason. The high court then placed all plaintiffs before the court.

“We are asking the court to decide whose jurisdiction it is” to fluoridate water, said Randy Black, general manager of the Lakewood Water District.

After a briefing scheduled for May 28, the court is expected to decide whether to consider the case, said Paul Lawrence, a Seattle lawyer representing the health board in the case.

The health department issued its order last October for water suppliers to fluoridate their drinking water by Jan. 1, 2004. Also, the department had told suppliers to sign contracts with the department by Jan. 2 this year, agreeing to fluoridate or face $250-a-day fines. But that penalty has been suspended until the court case is resolved.

About 300,000 residents in Tacoma, Fircrest and the local military bases already receive fluoridated drinking water.