Albuquerque Bernalillo County Water Utility Authority members should redo a vote on a controversial fluoridation program in a meeting that gives opponents and proponents a chance to have their say, says the leader of a government transparency organization.
On Wednesday, the board approved a plan to add fluoride to the municipal water supply. The fluoride plan, which passed 3-2, was attached as an amendment to a measure appropriating operation funds for fiscal year 2018.
Fluoridation was not listed on Wednesday’s board agenda.
“This kind of maneuver is why people don’t trust public officials,” said Peter St. Cyr, executive director of the Foundation for Open Government. “It is an intellectually dishonest way to deliberate and vote on public policy. Looking at the meeting agenda, there is no reasonable expectation that any resident could have known the fluoride program would be added at the last minute.”
A year ago, the same fluoridation plan was defeated 4-2. But before the 2016 meeting the fact that fluoridation was under consideration by the board had been publicized and 17 people turned out to voice either support or opposition to the plan.
That was not the case at this week’s meeting.
Water authority members – those for and against fluoridation – agree that they have been well-schooled on the issue and no amount of additional public comment is going to alter their opinions.
“This thing was highly debated,” County Commissioner Debbie O’Malley said. “We had a town hall (in 2014). We discussed it at length. We have looked at it all kinds of different ways. You can’t argue that the board is not well-informed on the issue.”
O’Malley left Wednesday’s Water Authority meeting early to attend a neighborhood association meeting and did not vote on the fluoride amendment. She said, however, she is inclined to support it.
Fluoride occurs naturally in Albuquerque’s water supply at a level of 0.5 parts per million. At Wednesday’s meeting, County Commissioner Wayne Johnson proposed the amendment that calls for adding enough fluoride to bring local levels up to 0.7 parts per million, the optimum recommended by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Fluoride supporters, which include the American Dental Association, say fluoridation is the most dependable way of preventing tooth decay and enhancing oral health for entire communities.
But opponents claim it does little to prevent tooth decay, causes health problems and is a violation of human rights.
At last year’s meeting, 10 people spoke out against fluoridation and seven championed it.
Johnson said people who were very much against fluoridation a year ago will be very much against it now, and that people who ardently supported it a year ago will support it now.
“I believe fluoride provides dental and oral health,” he said. “I feel strongly in favor of it. I have heard these arguments (against fluoride) before and they are not going to change my mind.”
Johnson’s amendment added funds – about $260,000 for facility construction and $270,000 a year for operation and maintenance – to the fiscal year 2018 budget to pay for fluoridation.
Last year, those funds were in the fiscal year 2017 budget and City Councilor Trudy Jones introduced a successful amendment to remove the money, thus killing fluoridation then.
Jones voted against fluoridation Wednesday. She said she does not believe there is exact science to support either side of the argument, but she is concerned about how far government should go in dictating how people live.
“Can we, should we, force people to consume a product they don’t want to consume?” she asked.
Jones said she was “absolutely surprised” when Johnson proposed his amendment Wednesday. But she said unexpected alterations to budgets happen all the time in government meetings.
County Commissioner Maggie Hart Stebbins voted for fluoridation last year and again Wednesday. She said she sees no difference in the way the issue was handled last year and this week.
“The same administrative process that was used to defeat it last year was used to pass it this year,” she said. “There have been exhaustive discussions on whether we should do this or not. There is no secret that I think (fluoridation) is the right thing to do for the community. That’s what I get from dentists and public health officials. And every time it comes up for a vote, I’m going to vote for it.”
City Councilor Pat Davis joined Hart Stebbins in supporting fluoridation last year, and he, like Hart Stebbins, voted for it again Wednesday.
Davis said one of the big differences between last year and this year is that the board has changed. Two of the four board members who voted against fluoridation in 2016 are no longer on the board and one – City Chief Administrative Officer Rob Perry – was not present at Wednesday’s meeting.
“It is reasonable that a new board would take this up again,” Davis said. “This is the budget process. This is about refunding a project.”
Johnson said that members of the public that oppose fluoridation have the right to approach the board and ask it to reconsider its decision.
Davis said he would not be surprised if fluoride opponents attended the board’s June meeting to do just that.
FOG’s St. Cyr said board members should make the first move.
“FOG would encourage them to redo the vote and invite the public,” he said.