IT’S NOT WORKING.
The Port Angeles City Council has mismanaged the process of obtaining public input on the fluoridation of city water to the point that many members of the public feel disenfranchised rather than empowered by those elected to represent them.
The issue has gone beyond fluoridation to the question of whether democracy works in Port Angeles.
Speakers who feel their wishes have been ignored have packed council meetings to boo at Councilmen Dan Gase and Brad Collins, Deputy Mayor Cherie Kidd and Mayor Patrick Downie — dubbed the Fluoride Four — who voted in favor of fluoridation as a public health measure to protect residents’ teeth.
Kidd, who served as chair of the council last Tuesday while Downie participated by phone, showed her exasperation, interrupting speakers, cutting some short before their three-minute limit ended and using her gavel liberally before abruptly adjourning the meeting and walking out.
Gase also left. Collins remained in the audience. Remaining at the dais were council members Michael Merideth, Sissi Bruch and Lee Whetham, who encouraged public comment for another 30 minutes.
The rift has led to a movement by those who feel unrepresented by the majority of the City Council to downgrade Port Angeles city government from a code city to a second-class city.
That potentially could stop the fluoridating of city water by prompting new elections for all seven council seats.
But it’s only a possibility. What the change would definitely do is strip residents of their ability to originate initiatives and referenda and deny their City Council representatives home-rule authority.
Even anti-fluoridation activist Dr. Eloise Kailin called the move a “draconian” solution, while also saying it might be necessary to stop what she and others feel is forced medication that harms them.
Surely there’s a better way to deal with the fluoridation question than by changing the form of city government for the sake of one issue.
How can we as a community hit the reset button to bring down the animosity and have a productive dialogue?
The community process of decision-making prompted by the upcoming expiration of a 10-year contract to fluoridate water was derailed by an informal, unscientific survey sent to all city water customers.
Many of those opposed to fluoridation refer to the survey as a vote. They see the council’s Jan. 5 decision to continue fluoridation despite a majority of survey respondents opposing it as a slap in the face of democracy.
The survey was not a vote.
Even as a survey, it was deeply flawed.
Questionnaires were sent only to water customers, not all water users. Those whose name was not on a water account — such as others living in a household or renters whose landlords pay their water bills — did not receive surveys while those with multiple water accounts received several.
Of the total who responded, 2,381, or 56.64 percent, rejected continuing fluoridation, while 1,835, or 41.27, approved the practice.
But less than half of the 9,762 surveys were returned.
That left Kidd to conclude that most who received surveys had no problem with water fluoridation. She moved to continue fluoridation, and her motion was supported by the three others of the “Fluoride Four,” with all four basing their decisions on hearings as well as the survey.
The survey fostered an expectation that results would be accepted as the will of the people.
So the council decision didn’t end the debate.
Instead, it has grown in animosity, with both sides conducting themselves inappropriately.
Members of the City Council and those opposed to fluoridation are reacting off each other’s actions to the point that the original question has become obscured.
Our elected officials on the council should go back to the drawing board and defuse the situation by listening to their constituents.
That could be done through an advisory vote.
The council last year decided against placing such a vote on the Nov. 3 ballot after Clallam County Auditor Shoona Riggs said the county could not mail ballots to the more than 1,550 Clallam County Public Utility District addresses that receive city water because ballots are mailed by precincts, not geographic areas that contain portions of precincts.
Instead, the council opted for the informal survey that included city water customers who are within the public utility district outside of the city.
An advisory vote would leave out customers who live outside city limits.
But after all, the decision is one that is made by the Port Angeles City Council and an advisory vote would give a better picture of the wishes of its constituents than an informal, flawed survey.
If such a vote were taken, all parties would need to agree to abide by it.
Don’t ask the question if you aren’t prepared to accept the answer.