The public will get a chance to chew on the great fluoride debate before council decides whether to go to a plebiscite.

City council voted unanimously on Monday night to hold a “public conversation” on how the public wants the city to address the fluoride issue.

After public feedback is gathered, council plans to debate whether to go to a citizen vote on fluoride or decide the issue without a plebiscite. Council set no deadlines for the public consultation process.

One of the issues is cost. Holding a vote outside of a municipal election would cost around $100,000, compared with $5,000 if the question was tacked on a municipal ballot.

Council’s decision amounts to a compromise of various options presented by city staff, which included a plebiscite with or without public consultation followed by a council decision. Council could also decide the issue on its own with or without public input.

In February, Councillor Buck Buchanan had proposed a notice of motion directing administration to prepare a fluoridation plebiscite question for the 2013 election. Council voted in March to table that motion so staff could prepare report on that issue.

That report took a neutral stance on fluoridation but outlined how other communities have handled the issue.

“It is in our minds a decision of council,” said Paul Goranson, the city’s director of development services, told council. “We don’t consider it an acute water safety issue.”

Buchanan agreed to withdraw his original notice of motion and backed the new course of action, adding all councillors “seem to be on the same page.”

Mayor Morris Flewwelling said earlier in the debate he was reluctant to make fluoride an election issue by putting it on the municipal ballot. “I think it could be divisive at election time.”

Flewwelling supported finding out if the public want a plebiscite before going that route.

Councillor Paul Harris said he has heard from many residents on both sides of the issue but doesn’t support deciding it with a plebiscite.

“I do not think it’s appropriate for one neighbour to choose the best medical treatment for another neighbour.”

Harris wants to see a high level of public engagement on the issue before deciding the next step.

Councillor Frank Wong suggested putting the fluoride question on the ballot may help reverse the poor voter turnouts of the last few elections.

“By having a plebiscite we’ll get more people out to express their views.”

The fluoride question could be put to the public during the city’s next Ipsos Reid poll, said Councillor Chris Stephan. The city has been using the survey for the past five years to gauge public satisfaction.