Dentists lost the fight at the County Commission to keep adding fluoride to Pinellas County drinking water. But some of them want to appeal to a higher authority: voters.
Leaders in state and local dental groups have begun weekly conference calls to consider options for a County Charter referendum next year to require that Pinellas fluoridate water.
Longtime Clearwater lawyer Lou Kwall aided their cause last month. He persuaded commissioners to direct County Attorney Jim Bennett to give them options for a ballot measure.
Bennett said Friday his preliminary findings show a referendum is possible in a countywide election. But he won't draft any language until the board offers more direction, which is likely by its Dec. 20 meeting.
"Based on what happened and the feedback I'm getting, a referendum may be the way to do it," said Commission Chairwoman Susan Latvala, a fluoride backer.
The board voted 4-3 in October to end the practice Dec. 31, triggering polarized reactions locally and nationally. Most health organizations support fluoridation for dental health, but opponents call it poison and government-forced medication. Pinellas was the largest supplier in the eastern U.S. without fluoridation when it began adding it in 2004. But some communities have backed off in recent years.
Dismayed by the October vote, which affects about 700,000 people, members of the Upper Pinellas County Dental Association and the Pinellas County Dental Association, which represents southern areas, went to work with state dental leaders.
For example, they expect to soon launch a website with the recommended fluoride levels in Pinellas County communities.
Last week's decision by Dunedin to continue fluoridation also buoyed dentists.
But the complexities of a ballot issue have confounded them.
"The people that have been through this before are really nervous about a referendum," said dentist Ed Hopwood of Clearwater, chairman of the Upper Pinellas group's fluoridation committee.
"The attractiveness is, it would be a definitive statement that we couldn't take out in a workshop," Hopwood added, referring to the setting of the commission's vote to stop fluoridating.
A petition-driven charter amendment needs 60,492 valid voter signatures to make the ballot. Organizers have to pay the Supervisor of Elections Office 10 cents to validate each signature — a $6,049 cost itself. But dentists have no formal local political action committee yet.
"My God, it's practically impossible for one person today. You need a political action committee," said Kwall, who is volunteering help to dentists.
That led Kwall and some dentists to favor asking the commission to place the measure on the ballot. But not all dentists agree a referendum is the right path.
Some fluoride supporters, including Commissioner Ken Welch, worry their chances will be harmed by adding complicated science to an election season overflowing with presidential campaign ads.
Voter rejection could cement the October commission vote politically, or even cause St. Petersburg to stop adding fluoride in its own water system if the ballot language isn't limited to county water.
"If it does go to a referendum and it loses, our chances of getting it back are low," said dentist Amy Anderson of St. Petersburg, president of the Pinellas County Dental Association.
Fluoride opponents vow to fight any referendum mandating fluoridation.
"Water fluoridation — both regarding its safety and effectiveness — is just another big lie which, after decades of blind acceptance, is fast being exposed," said Tom Nocera of Clearwater, a longtime opponent of fluoridation. "I will never support . . . any referendum mandating toxic chemicals go into our drinking water ..."
Commissioner Nancy Bostock, who voted against fluoride, opposes a referendum because she said the commission's two October votes should be final.
The issue is a matter of giving people their right to choose whether they wanted fluoride added to water, Bostock said.
"If you're really, really opposed to the concept of fluoridation, I don't think it matters to you who's voting to fluoridate the water," Bostock said.
Instead, dentists and other fluoride supporters could take a page from opponents. Despite the board's 6-1 vote to add fluoride in 2003, opponents continued to fight.
They found a commission this fall with three different members more receptive to opponents.
Next year, commissioners Bostock and Neil Brickfield, who voted to eliminate fluoride, and commissioners Karen Seel and Welch, who support fluoride, are up for re-election. If there's no ballot question on fluoride, Kwall said, the vote will be a referendum on them.
"We had a different commission in 2003 that put it in. We can have a different commission in the future that adds it back," said Welch.
David DeCamp can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8779. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/decamptimes.