Unfortunately, just when the city council has successfully crossed the complex policy finish line, it appears to have tossed a political banana peel in its own path.

As a result of political grandstanding, frustrated fluoride boosters will enjoy an extra bite of the public relations apple come October.

Hamilton City Council has agreed to fund a non-binding referendum on fluoridation of city drinking water at the upcoming local elections. But, whatever the opinion poll outcome, HCC should have confidence its June decision to end the controversial practice was the right one.

The council reached an educated, dispassionate and reasoned decision after four days of evidentiary hearings and review of 1560 submissions. Its near-unanimous vote to stop adding hydrofluorosilicic acid to tap water reflected extensive evidence.

A tribunal was the right way to settle the complex fluoride question and was supported unanimously by councillors last December. The process was endorsed by the prime minister’s chief science adviser and the crown research Institute of Environmental Science and Research.

Councillors should respect the exhaustive process – and themselves – and assure their tribunal decision stands.

By granting petitioners a last chance to click the fluoride “like” button, HCC may have signalled to some that voters should be able to overturn the tribunal findings. But any such assumption would be a mistake.

Referenda are precisely the wrong way to settle complex policy questions. For starters, they are heavily influenced by money and powerful interest groups, both of which taint the results. In an attempt to mitigate this problem, councillors last week proposed a “voluntary spending cap” in the run-up to voting.

But any “spending cap” will be ineffective and unworkable. HCC has no authority to enforce such limits and no way of knowing to what groups, or individuals, they should apply.

And actual “spending” is only part of the problem. Undue influence comes in many forms. With referenda like Hamilton’s fluoride vote, those in positions of power have a big advantage. The Waikato DHB and its ministry handlers have an army of salaried staff to make their case for reinstating fluoridation. In contrast, citizens opposed to forced medication work in their limited free time with scant resources.

Influence comes from other quarters as well. The conservative daily provincial press, far from being even-handed, and after failing to provide substantive coverage of the tribunal proceedings, has made itself a virtual podium for pro-fluoride commentators, inside government and out, since the decision. Meanwhile, money could not buy the hours of vitriolic talkback radio that have been devoted to preserving fluoridation in Hamilton.

Would Hamilton City Council agree that all major decisions should be subject to second-guessing by the public? Should voters have the last say on all rates increases? Should Hamilton residents, not councillors, be the ones to sign off on district plan changes? Should voters get an up-or-down vote on council staffing and compensation, or cuts to city services and rises in user pays? Probably not.

To be sure, referenda have a useful place in local government. Most importantly, they provide a way for average citizens to put on the public agenda issues and policy that elected representatives fail – or refuse – to address.

Simple matters lend themselves well to the tick-a-box referendum process. Complex issues requiring substantial research – like fluoridation – do not. That’s why we have elected public representatives to sort through the detail, turn off the “noise”, and come to considered decisions on behalf of the rest of us.

Last week’s razor-thin decision to hold a referendum was itself laden with obvious conflict of interest. Three councillors – Wilson, Mahood, and Gallagher – participated despite their $27,000 annual side jobs on the Waikato District Health Board, which vigorously opposed HCC’s decision to end fluoridation. With this trio at the table, the Waikato DHB essentially controlled the outcome.

In October, voters can make sure their future elected officials represent either Hamilton City or the Waikato District Health Board – but not both.

The fluoride saga has dragged on in Hamilton for years.

Unfortunately, just when the city council has successfully crossed the complex policy finish line, it appears to have tossed a political banana peel in its own path.

HCC should make sure not to turn its non-binding referendum offer into a fluoride “own goal”.

A fluoride popularity contest, no matter the final vote count, should not determine council policy.

Geoffrey Robinson and Reihana Robinson comment regularly on local government, public policy, and environmental issues. Send your comments to robinsonsreport@gmail.com).