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Hamilton councillors flush fluoride referendum

 By Kevin Werner, News Staff

 Hamilton residents won’t be going to the polls next year to decide if fluoride should continue to be in the city’s water system.

Instead, politicians are asking that a citizen’s committee be created that would further review the issue.

After seeing the majority of his colleagues say they wouldn’t want a referendum on fluoride during next fall’s municipal election, Stoney Creek councillor Brad Clark, who introduced the motion, withdrew his proposal at the Dec. 4 general issues committee meeting.

Clarksaid he had “no problem” supporting the creation of a citizen task force, similar to the one that was created by council to review the contentious area-rating issue.

The veteran politician said he had promised to introduce a motion to hold a referendum on the issue because the public should have the opportunity to decide what they put into their bodies.

“More and more people are concerned about it,” said Clark.

The idea would have been to hold the referendum under the Municipal Elections Act, and the Fluoride Act, which would make the results of the ballot binding on the next council. Some other municipalities have held referendums, including the City of Waterloo and Amherstburg, which decided to remove fluoride, to Halton Region and Toronto where residents there voted to keep it in the water system.

Hamilton held two referendums in 1966 and 1968 when it introduced fluoride in the drinking water. Both votes narrowly passed in favour of fluoride.

Two political scientists, including Dr. Peter Graefe of McMaster University, and Dr. Larry Levin, of the Hamilton Academy of Dentistry, insisted councillors are better informed to decide on such an important health issue rather than allowing the public to decide in a referendum.

It was a comment that irked Clark.

“Citizens make decisions every election,” said Clark. “There are thousands and thousands that are faced with (health) decisions inHamiltonevery day. I have a lot of problems with that. It’s elitist, and offensive.”

Most councillors questioned why fluoride would be on a municipal election ballot in the first place when there are more important issues to debate.

“I’m not inflating this issue,” said Ward 5 councillor Chad Collins. “If we are looking at hot topics, fluoride is not rising to the top. It’s a slippery slope putting (fluoride) on the ballot.”

Collins supported the city’s medical officer of health, and the rest of the medical establishment that supports fluoride.

Dr. Elizabeth Richardson,Hamilton’s chief health official, reiterated that the science behind fluoride is clear.

“It has been studied over and over,” she said. “It’s not harmful. There is an overall benefit.”

Mountain councillor Tom Jackson said he can image other issues constituents would rather have on a referendum, including light-rail transit, a casino, and even amalgamation.

“I can’t support putting in on a ballot,” he said.

Other councillors said fluoride isn’t an issue that is on their residents’ minds.

“This is not a big issue in my ward,” said Mountain councillor Scott Duvall.

Mountain councillor Terry Whitehead remained divided on the issue. While he disagrees about holding referendums, he can see the merits of allowing the fluoride issue to be on a ballot. He said citizens these days are more concerned about what they are eating and drinking. While supporting the city’s medical officer of health, and other physicians who support fluoride, the science on the issue does change over the years, he said.

“It should not be mandated, it’s a choice,” said Whitehead.

Councillors, though, latched onto the citizen’s task force idea, allowing residents to delve deeper into the information about fluoride.

“I love the idea,” Whitehead. “I wish I had thought about it myself.”

City staff will report back to the Board of Health within three months with the cost associated with creating a citizen’s panel. The report will also outline the discussion parameters for the group. The new council after the Oct. 27, 2014 municipal election will be responsible for overseeing the creation of the body.

Politicians will vote on the recommendation at their Dec. 11 council meeting.

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