A public referendum on community fluoridation would be illegal, Oneida City Attorney Neal Rose told common councilors this week.
Rose researched the matter after some city officials said they wanted residents to decide whether Oneida should add fluoride to the city water supply as a way to curb tooth decay.
Fluoridation has divided the city since the late 1970s, when Oneida first proposed to fluoridate the public water supply. The debate resurfaced Tuesday during a common council work session with local dental health professionals and Madison County Health Department public educator James Kinsella.
Councilors have questioned whether they have a right to decide what people should consume. Ward 4 Councilor Army Carinci suggested leaving it up to city voters.
Wednesday, Rose said that can’t happen.
“It’s not an option,” he said. “You can’t spend public money on a public opinion poll. You can’t delegate your legislative authority to the public.”
Under city and state laws, Rose said, referendums are reserved for proposed changes to the city charter, multimillion-dollar expenditure plans or “a legislative change to some aspect of city government.”
Moreover, Oneida’s water department serves the nearby Madison County communities of Stockbridge and Wampsville, and Vernon, Verona and Sherrill in neighboring Oneida County. Some of those towns have more than one water district. A referendum for so many jurisdictions is “totally unworkable,” Rose said.
Politically, community fluoridation is an issue with several implications. Since the initial 1978 debate, city residents who oppose fluoridation have spoken louder than those who support it, based on the attendance of public meetings then and now, petitions submitted to the common council and the frequency of calls to a local “open line” radio talk show.
Ward 3 Councilor Erwin Smith said the common council still has a lot to learn about community fluoridation – as well as other methods of curbing tooth decay – before voting on any proposal.
“I didn’t even know you could get this (fluoride tablets) through your prescription plan. I just found that out,” he said.
“It’s not a matter of doing it (reducing tooth decay locally), it’s a matter of how you do it. I think there’s a lot of people to hear from still,” Smith said.