The two major contributors to the failed ballot measure to fluoridate Bellingham’s water disagree on whether it’s worthwhile to take the issue to voters in the wake of last month’s election result.
“I think we’ll not be pursuing initiatives for the foreseeable future,” said David Hemion, assistant executive director of the Washington State Dental Association, which spent $118,549 in the Bellingham election.
The issue might come up again in Bellingham, he said, but he doubted the association would fund another fluoridation campaign in the city.
“It’s not necessarily going to go back into fluoridation, but it will go to support better oral health in the state of Washington,” Pickard said. “It could very well be used in another community for fluoridation or other programs.”
But, Hemion said, “If there are communities out there that are interested in implementing water fluoridation, we’d certainly be willing to help support them.”
However, the Washington Dental Service Foundation, which contributed $84,434 to the pro-fluoride campaign and pledged to cover $600,000 toward startup costs for fluoridation in Bellingham, has hired a consulting firm to hold focus groups of Bellingham voters next week.
The results of last month’s election will not discourage the foundation from taking the issue to voters elsewhere, said Tracy Garland, the foundation’s president. But the loss underscores the need to find out more about how people – particularly those without strong opinions before the election – made their voting-day decision, Garland said.
“We need to understand what to do and how to go about convincing a majority of people,” she said. “It’s still a winnable issue, in my opinion.”
It’s too simple to say “never again” to popular elections and instead take the issue only to city councils and health boards, said Sean Pickard, the foundation’s government relations manager. In many communities, voters have strong initiative powers and could put a council’s decision on the ballot anyway, he said.
“Why take step A when you know you’re going to get to step B?” Pickard said. “You might as well do step B.”
Neither the dental association nor the foundation said they plan to ask state legislators to enact fluoridation statewide.
In Bellingham, both sides of the contentious debate say they’re taking a break before deciding what to do next.
“We’re regrouping right now,” said Danelle Weaver, treasurer for Healthy Goals for Bellingham, which opposed the measure.
The group plans to offer help to other anti-fluoridation groups that want it, she said, as well as work toward improving oral health in the community.
“We have a list of things that members have thrown out as ideas,” she said. “Now, it’s setting priorities.”
The end result may involve working with people who supported fluoridation.
That’s fine, Weaver said.
“We’re working for the same principles,” she said. “We just see different ways of reaching the goals.”
Curt Smith, co-chair of Bellingham Families for Fluoride, said the Oral Health Coalition plans to continue working on programs such as improving access to dentistry for low-income kids and adults.
Anyone who wants to help, even those who opposed fluoridation, is welcome to join, he said.
“I would expect it when pigs fly and shrimps whistle,” Smith said. “I have not personally had anybody call me and say, ‘What can I do to help with oral health?'”