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Fluoridation vote for Utah counties still up in the air

Officials say water and voting districts overlap

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The quest for some Utah counties to get water fluoridation on the November ballot has been anything but smooth sailing, and some county officials say there's more rough water ahead.

But fluoridation advocates say the obstacles are imaginary, made up by people who simply don't want county residents to be able to vote on the issue.

Officials from Weber, Utah and Davis counties say boundary lines have come into conflict with SB158, the state Senate bill that proposes a special district election process on fluoridation during a regular election year. These officials say overlaps of water districts and county voting precincts make such a vote an impossibility, at least as long as the bill maintains its current language.

"It's just a problem with the way SB158 was drafted," Utah Association of Counties executive director Brent Gardner said. He said the language at the end of the bill allows voters in individual water districts to opt out of fluoridation of drinking water, even if voters in the precinct as a whole approve it.

Gardner said because some water districts straddle two or more voting precincts — and some even seem to overlap each other — and because election judges know a voter's precinct but not water district at the time the resident votes, it is impossible to know which water districts approve fluoridation and which ones oppose it.

"I just think the Legislature didn't know the problem they were getting in when they approved that language," he said. The Senate passed the bill, which was presented during the 2000 general session by Sen. Edgar Allen, D-Ogden, by an 18-11 vote.

But Davis County Board of Health chairwoman Beth Beck said the perceived difficulties are imagined, the result of the combined fears and concerns of county commissioners and county clerks. She said they are forgetting two important words in SB158's language: "Functionally separate."

"I feel there are no flaws," Beck said. "This is as good as it gets."

She said the bill allows water districts to opt out of water fluoridation — if they are "functionally separate." She said as far as she can tell, that means districts that don't overlap into other voting precincts.

She said the board has asked lawmakers to provide a statement explaining what they meant by the words "functionally separate."

Beck said the problem is the result of county clerks who don't want to "find a creative way" to separate votes of individuals in different water districts and of county commissioners who are opposing a countywide vote as a roundabout way of opposing fluoridation.

"I guess that we elect people to provide the best opportunities (for public health) they can," Beck said. But she said the way the fluoridation issue is being handled "is denying people the chance" to have good health.

Gardner said he met with Gov. Mike Leavitt's chief of staff Rich McKeown Friday morning about the issue, and representatives from the association hope to meet with lawmakers within the next two weeks to try to iron out the problems. McKeown said Gardner presented the dilemma to him to let the governor's office know the latest on the issue. McKeown said such meetings are common in the governor's office.

Davis County Commissioner Gayle Stevenson said if the governor calls a special session of the Legislature and they can change the bill's language or find another solution, the issue may still be put to a vote in the affected counties Nov. 7.

But the governor's spokeswoman, Vicki Varela, said Leavitt has no plans to get involved.

"The governor hasn't been involved and doesn't plan to get involved in this because it's a local issue," Varela said.

Gardner said he is aware the governor isn't planning to get involved, but he said if Leavitt and the Legislature decide they want to do anything to sort out the problems, "we're ready to help." He added that the association has no official position on fluoridation.

The fluoridation debate is a long-standing one in Utah, dating back at least to 1961, when Salt Lake City voters rejected fluoridation by a 3-to-1 margin. Fluoridation proponents say adding fluoride to drinking water prevents tooth decay and saves residents money on dental care. They say Utah and Nevada are the two states with the least fluoridated water. But opponents say it is an invasion of their right to choose, and some say the health benefits of fluoride may be outweighed by possible health risks.

Recently, a ballot vote on fluoridation looked iffy because HB396, a state bill limiting ballot initiatives and referendums to odd-numbered years, seemed to stand in the way.

But Beck said that concern, which county officials were looking into last month, was alleviated when the officials read the bill in its entirety and discovered it wouldn't present a barrier.

E-mail: dsmeath@desnews.com