An off-again, on-again initiative to add fluoride to Spokane’s drinking water is definitely off again.
On Monday, the Spokane City Council was told the initiative had failed to gain enough valid signatures to qualify for the November ballot.
As a result, the council voted unanimously to stop any further consideration of placing the measure on the ballot this year.
“The whole issue is a dead issue. It’s gone,” said Councilman Al French. Any effort to fluoridate Spokane water will have to involve a completely new initiative petition. “They are going to have to start from scratch,” French said.
A group called Fluoridation Works had gathered 3,099 signatures in an effort to fluoridate city water.
The cost of installing a fluoride system was estimated at $2.5 million, about $12 a year for residential water customers for each of the first three years of fluoridation. After that, the annual cost would drop to about $4 a year.
Last week, the council agreed to advance the fluoride initiative to the ballot this fall even though the measure appeared to have only enough signatures to qualify for the municipal general election in 2005, when council seats appear on the ballot. More signatures are needed to place a city initiative on any other ballot, including this fall’s state general election.
The council ordered the city clerk to submit the petition signatures to the Spokane County auditor to ensure that it had at least 2,573 signatures from registered city voters.
Spokane Auditor Vicky Dalton reported on Monday that her office checked 1,871 signatures and found that 592 of them were not from registered city voters. That meant that the initiative had no chance of reaching the minimum validation requirement, so her office workers stopped checking names.
In seeking signatures, proponents of the measure had mistakenly thought they needed signatures equal to 5 percent of the votes cast in the 2003 municipal general election to qualify for this year’s ballot, but the City Charter only allows 5 percent petitions to qualify measures for municipal general elections in odd years.
The charter requires a 15 percent petition for any other election.
Council members voted 4-3 last week to allow the smaller number of signatures for the fluoridation initiative this year. That is a power granted to the council by the charter. But the council also required the signatures to meet at least the 5 percent threshold.
John Robideaux, chairman of Fluoridation Works, said his organization has not given up its effort to introduce fluoride into Spokane water. The organization is seeking to improve the dental health of children in the community. Fluoride is widely regarded by its proponents as a safe and effective substance for preventing tooth decay.
He said his group should have been able to correctly identify city voters when gathering signatures. “Frankly, we need to do a better job of finding voters who live in the city,” he said.
Some of the petitions were placed at offices of doctors and dentists who support the measure, he said, but about 60 percent of the signatures were obtained by paid signature gatherers. Those workers were hired through a temporary employment agency, he said.
His organization will meet to discuss its next move, he said, but Robideaux expects the proponents to mount another petition drive next spring. Fluoridation Works spent about half of an $18,000 campaign fund it had collected, so it will have seed money to mount another petition drive next year, he said. Also, the group next year should be able to use campaign strategy and plans already put together under a campaign slogan, “It works,” Robideaux said.
Fluoridation opponents, who are concerned about the safety of fluoride compounds and leery of government authority to put fluoride into drinking water, said they were pleased by Monday’s developments.
Betty Fowler of the Safe Water Coalition of Washington State said she felt like she was dreaming after hearing the news. “I like this dream,” she said.
“I was prepared for a tough fight,” Fowler said.
Don Caron, of People for Ethical Alternatives for Children’s Health, said opponents also want voters to consider the type of fluoride compound that would be put into the water if the community votes for fluoridation.