By Julie Muhlstein Herald Columnist
This isn’t a column about science, dental care or whether I favor fluoride in Everett’s water.
It’s not about some Everett City Council members walking out when anti-fluoride activists came to speak during the public-comment portion of a meeting last week.
I’m here to ask a question. It was suggested Wednesday night by council president Ron Gipson when people who oppose fluoride in our water returned to keep up their fight.
Gipson had a message for the activists, as Herald writer Debra Smith reported Thursday in her Inside Everett blog: If the issue is so important, why not gather signatures to put it on the ballot?
It’s the same question I asked James Deal earlier Wednesday. A Lynnwood attorney, Deal has for weeks been leading anti-fluroride activists as they bring their issue before the Everett council.
Why not go to the voters? Deal has a list of answers as to why an initiative drive isn’t his aim.
It was November 1993 when Everett voters last decided, by 61 percent, that its water would remain fluoridated. Everett’s water system serves much of Snohomish County, but the question was decided only by voters in the city. In 1990, an earlier Everett ballot issue passed in favor of fluoridation.
Before the 1993 vote, a group called the Pure Water Association of Everett gathered more than 2,700 signatures on petitions favoring a ban. Deal wasn’t involved then.
“Number one, we would be out-spent 100-to-1,” Deal said Wednesday about taking the issue to voters. “The chemical companies fund the dental and medical schools. There would be endless amounts of money for lawyers and advertising,” he said.
Countering established arguments that advocate fluoride to battle tooth decay may be an uphill battle. Yet some fluoride foes have won elections. In 2005, 53 percent of Bellingham voters rejected fluoride in water. And fluoridation has been a three-time loser with Spokane’s voters.
Deal has other reasons for continually bringing his fight to the City Council, rather than voters. He doesn’t think it’s an issue that should be decided by majority rule.
I see his logic, but in my mind that’s an argument that applies to major civil rights issues. Would a majority of voters have approved the 1964 Civil Rights Act, which banned racial discrimination?
“The majority does not have the right to force a drug on everybody else,” Deal said. “I would hope that people of goodwill and good common sense would do the right thing,” he said, explaining why he keeps coming back to the council. He expects fluoridation to come up in council races.
Any ballot effort to remove fluoride from Everett water would be done through the initiative process, city attorney James Iles said Thursday.
The city charter says Everett voters have the power to direct legislation by an initiative or referendum. A referendum, Iles said, is to keep an ordinance from taking effect.
For an initiative, qualified signatures of 15 percent of the number of voters who cast ballots in the last general municipal election are needed. The petition is filed with the proposed ordinance.
In the last Everett council election, Nov. 8, 2011, ballots were cast by 21,749 voters, said Garth Fell, Snohomish County elections manager. An anti-fluoride initiative would need at least 3,263 signatures.
Deal cited another thorny issue he believes would keep an initiative off the ballot. In 2010, the state Supreme Court ruled that initiatives filed in 2006 to keep fluoride out of Port Angeles water went beyond the scope of the initiative process. In a 5-4 ruling, the court agreed with the Port Angeles City Council that the initiatives concerned administrative and not legislative issues.
“People did not have the right to do an initiative,” Deal said.
On Thursday though, Iles and Ramsey Ramerman, Everett’s assistant city attorney, said they believe legal arguments in the 2010 ruling are narrow, applying to the Port Angeles case but not all possible anti-fluoride initiatives. “I don’t read it as an absolute prohibition. How they tried to do it didn’t work,” Ramerman said of initiative backers in Port Angeles.
Ramerman said Deal is more familiar with the case, but added “I don’t see this as being an absolute bar.”
Deal thinks science is on his side, and expert opinions are evolving. He plans to keep talking. “This is a statewide effort. We don’t know where the breakthrough is going to come,” he said.
One more time, why not try for a vote?
“I don’t see myself standing on street corners collecting signatures,” Deal said.
Julie Muhlstein: 425-339-3460, firstname.lastname@example.org.