Flagstaff voters have rejected for the third time a bid by city officials to add fluoride to the city's water supply — this time in an all mail-in election.
Out of 11,545 valid ballots received by 7 p.m. Tuesday, 6,717, or 58 percent, opposed fluoridating the water supply, vs. 4,828, or 42 percent, in support.
Turnout was 44.4 percent of the city's 26,530 registered voters — 12 percentage points higher than the turnout for the May 2000 City Council election.
Another 244 ballots were disqualified because they weren't signed at all or because signatures didn't match those on voter registration rosters.
Bruce Bloomquist, vice chairman for the anti-fluoride group Flagstaff Citizens for Safe Drinking Water, said he was "cautiously elated" at 7:30 p.m., when preliminary results mirrored the final vote percentages.
"I think it exemplifies the fact that we were the grassroots movement. Public supporters are saying, 'Keep our water pure.' If (fluoridation) is not on its way out, it should be."
The pro-fluoride side, which lost at the polls for the third time since 1954, said children will suffer.
"If the numbers hold up, it's kind of disturbing," said Paul Gosar, the local dentist who was pushing to fluoridate Flagstaff's water. "If we do lose, you've got a very captive audience who should volunteer in our schools to look at dietary needs."
Gosar has said he sees too much tooth decay among local children and adults, and he believes fluoride is the answer. Topical fluoride treatments used in his profession are often cost-prohibitive, he says, adding that fluoridating the water supply is cheap by comparison. And supporters say fluoride could reach poor people without access to adequate dental care.
Opponents have contended that fluoride surrounds people in their daily diets — the exact amounts have yet to be studied — and they worry that adding it to the water supply could become too much of a good thing. They say neither the safety nor the effectiveness of ingested fluoride has been proved beyond doubt and that there are too many questions about possible connections with various ailments from cancer to weakened bones.
Most scientific literature and the country's major health organizations — including the Mayo Clinic, the national Institutes of Health, the national Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and others — have come out in favor of water fluoridation as a safe and effective means to help fight tooth decay.
The federal Environmental Protection Agency has set a safe fluoridation limit of 4 ppm in drinking water. Flagstaff's proposal was for 1 ppm.
Neither pro- or anti-fluoride activists said they saw Tuesday's vote as an end to the issue. Both said before the results came out that next spring's City Council elections will be a good opportunity to stack people who voted their way, should they lose.
"I think we have a process by which we need to look at where our officials stand," Gosar said upon hearing preliminary results.
He added he would consider trying to place fluoridation back onto the ballot as an initiative in May, if the deadline hasn't already passed.
The Flagstaff City Council voted 4-3 in April to add fluoride to the drinking water, citing its potential to improve the dental health of the public and particularly children.
Opponents gathered the necessary signatures to refer the issue to the voters, and the council decided to hold a single-issue special election, and do it by all-mail ballots.
It's not the first time the issue has come to a vote here. Voters turned it down in 1954 and again in 1978.
MAIL-IN ELECTION SMOOTH
Candace Owens, the county recorder, said the mail-in ballot system went off like a charm for people tallying the votes.
The unofficial final results were in by about 11:30 p.m. Tuesday, just 4 1/2 hours after access to the ballot boxes was stopped. But by the time voting ended, most of the ballots had already been counted.
"The majority of our work has been accomplished," Owens said a half-hour before the voting cutoff. By Monday, county officials had already tabulated more than 10,000 votes.
There will be a learning curve for voters — more than 200 ballots couldn't be counted because of inconsistencies in signatures.
"Part of those will be the husband signed for the wife, or a parent signed for a student. You can't do that," Owens said.
She said some people may have become confused by a special provision that allows authorized people to sign for those who can't because of medical impairments.
Twenty-four of the invalid ballots will be sent to the Coconino County Attorney's office for investigation, said Kris Wait, elections director.
Overall, Owens said voter turnout for this election was exemplary compared with past elections.
"My all-time favorite was a gas franchise election in 1995," she said. "We had 2 percent turnout." A 1997 bond election to fund buildings at the U.S. Geological Survey drew about 6 percent of the voting population.
In the May 2000 elections that determined the mayor and makeup of the City Council — also a controversial decision — 32 percent of registered voters participated, she recalled.
Owens foresees increasing voter returns with all mail-in ballots. This is the first time the city has used such a system.
"In states like Oregon, where they do all mail-in ballots, they have percentages in the 70s, consistently," said Owens, adding that she hopes Flagstaff voters will reach that level of political participation.
Anne Minard can be reached at email@example.com or 556-2253.
— Arizona Daily Sun