Watsonville residents will be the first in Santa Cruz County to receive fluoride in their tap water.

In a 4-3 vote, the City Council approved a contract for a $1.6 million grant from the California Dental Association Foundation to design and build a fluoridation system and operate it for two years.

Mayor Luis Alejo, Councilmen Manuel Bersamin and Antonio Rivas and Councilwoman Kimberly Petersen formed the majority for a vote that was the culmination of nearly a decade-long battle against the practice.

“Personally, I think the state law that brought us to this point is unfair, but I don’t think we can thumb our nose at the law,” said Petersen, urging opponents to use their energy to change the law.

State health officials have taken the position that the foundation’s grant offer triggered a California law that requires cities of 10,000 or more people to fluoridate if an outside entity covers costs.

Mayor Pro Tem Nancy Bilicich joined Councilmen Greg Caput and Emilio Martinez in voting no.

“I just think there’s a better way without violating other people rights,” Bilicich said.

About 60 people turned out for a debate that was mostly civil, though heated at times. Opponents questioned the safety of fluoride and said putting it in the water supply violated their rights. Judging from the applause for speakers during two hours of public testimony, the majority fell in that camp.

“I feel a great sense of sadness and tragedy that the water supply is going to be polluted with this chemical,” said resident Susan Gipe. “I do not want to be forced to drink or bathe in it.”

Though an appeals court said California law supersedes a city voter initiative that banned fluoridation and ordered Watsonville to move forward, some opponents urged officials to continue the legal battle.

“We have individual rights,” said resident Jim Roszell. “We have the right not to have forced medication. The city has a responsibility to take this issue to the (U.S.) Supreme Court.”

John Martinelli, president of juice maker S. Martinelli & Co. and long-time fluoride foe, was one of only two people who questioned the grant contract, the actual issue up for a vote. He said several provisions should be strengthened.

State law “does not say we have to accept a bad contract. We do not need to compromise,” Martinelli said.

Nick Bulaich, who has spearheaded the fluoride fight for years, expressed his frustration. He said health officials lied about the safety and effectiveness of fluoridation and urged the council not to listen to them.

“Don’t be chickens,” Bulaich said to a standing ovation.

Speakers in favor included dentists and other health professionals. They said fluoridation has been proven over decades to prevent tooth decay.

“Your health professionals in this area need your help,” said Hugo Ferlito, dental director at Salud Para La Gente.. “There’s not enough time, not enough resources to treat all dental disease.”

Rama Khalsa, director of the county Health Services Agency, said elsewhere in the county fluoride occurs naturally, in Scotts Valley at nearly “therapeutic levels.”

“I’d feel good for all members of our community to have access to fluoridated water,” Khalsa said.