By Michael Perrone
The Davis City Council has asked its Water Advisory Committee to examine whether we should add fluoride to our water supply. I followed the last two WAC meetings on this topic. The dozens of people who spoke at the meetings were sharply divided into opposing factions, pro-fluoridation and anti-fluoridation.
The heated debate made it clear that, no matter how the City Council votes on fluoridation, the decision will infuriate and disappoint a lot of people. And those people will work tirelessly to overturn that decision at some later time.
By debating a yes-or-no question about fluoridation, we lose sight of what we agree is desirable. All of us want strong and healthy teeth for ourselves and our families. We know that the incidence of tooth decay, especially in children, is higher than it needs to be. Many of us are willing to do what we can to provide fluoride to people who would benefit from it. Yet we spend our time, energy and emotion on fighting.
How can we turn this situation around into one that brings us together as a community? We can start by recognizing the strongly held views on both sides of the debate. The “pro” camp believes that fluoride is good for our teeth, and that the most reliable way to get it to people is by adding it to the water supply. The “con” camp sees water fluoridation as an inefficient use of fluoride, because we only drink a tiny fraction of the water we use. They believe that fluoridation forces this mineral onto those who don’t want it, and some of them are not sure it is safe.
How can we reconcile these diverse beliefs? I suggest that, rather than charging ahead with a vote, the City Council and its WAC take a few steps back. This will delay a decision, but it can reunite a needlessly divided community. And there is no urgency to decide the matter.
First, the council needs to be clear on what it wants a fluoride program to achieve. The WAC should work with the concerned public to identify the interests that a fluoridation program needs to satisfy. In these discussions, it is essential for everyone involved to be willing to take a turn standing in the shoes of people on the other side.
Step two is to craft a statement of purpose that acknowledges all of those interests. It is likely to be a fairly general statement, such as “work to ensure that fluoride is available to all who would benefit from it.” Then get creative and brainstorm a list of possible solutions. Could there be a tax to pay for fluoride for people who can’t afford it? Could we fluoridate only the water that goes to schools? Could we improve outreach and dental health services to the disadvantaged?
We will have to work through this patiently, till we have hammered out something that honors all the relevant needs. It will be challenging, because the subject of fluoride goes to core beliefs about the role of government in our personal lives. However, the process I have outlined, known as interest-based negotiation, has been used successfully on a wide range of contentious issues. It can produce solutions that all of us can manage to live with, if not embrace.
State law says that communities must put fluoride in their water supply if they can find the money to do so. So the question before us, in essence, is whether to find the money. But there is no need to force a simple, yes-or-no answer onto a complex issue. Instead, we need a solution that honors all interests and perspectives.
To choose a solution without agreement on the problem is to put the cart in front of the horse. Before we crack the whip over the horse’s head, let’s make sure we are all in the same cart.
— Michael Perrone lives in Davis and works in state government, where he helps find interest-based solutions to water management issues.