Public wrongly bypassed in drinking water issue | Florida Today Editorial

During the May 4 Brevard County commission meeting, chair Rita Pritchett asked the board to look into removing fluoride from the North Brevard water system.

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Roughly 8,000 Brevard County residents will no longer have fluoride added to their water starting at one this afternoon.

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And that is a shame.

Not because of our stance one way or the other regarding the addition of fluoride to drinking water, but because how the decision was made. The public was bypassed entirely during the process.

Wait, who are we kidding, there was no process.

At the end of last week’s commission meeting, District One Commissioner Rita Pritchett raised the issue, saying a recent email on the topic had “retriggered” her. Removing fluoride from Mims’ water wasn’t on any commission agenda, no public notice was given and there was no opportunity for public input.

The utility director was called up to address the commission but when pressed on his thoughts about fluoride, he deflected, noting his focus was on water quality not the public health issues. Then there was a brief debate, a 5-0 vote and it ended with Commissioner Bryan Lober seeming to suggest that Pritchett would still have his support when it came before the commission again because it affected only people in her district.

Except that it wouldn’t come before the commission again. That was it. The decision was made even though some commissioners admitted the next day they didn’t fully understand what they were voting on.

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The entire matter took all of seven minutes. It feels wrong. It feels sneaky. It feels like bad governance. Calls, emails and texts to Pritchett Wednesday went unanswered.

As of this afternoon, the Mims water supply will no longer be fluoridated to the specifications recommended by public health agencies to prevent cavities.

The tank at the Mims Water Treatment Plant that adds the fluoride to the water. The County Commission on Tuesday voted to allow Commissioner Rita Pritchett to begin remove the fluoride from the Mims water.

The tank at the Mims Water Treatment Plant that adds the fluoride to the water. The County Commission on Tuesday voted to allow Commissioner Rita Pritchett to begin remove the fluoride from the Mims water.

MALCOL DENEMARK/FLORIDA TODAY

Maybe the people of Mims would have supported Pritchett’s stance. We’ll never know for sure, and that’s the problem because we know just how passionate people get on this issue. Just a few years ago the same issue popped up in the city of Melbourne, which handled it perfectly. Obviously our county commissioners weren’t paying attention.

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Melbourne debated and researched the issue for three months before a final vote in favor of continuing to add fluoride to Melbourne drinking water. The council sought public input, requested information and summoned experts. At one meeting, more than 45 citizens addressed the council during a two-hour public comment session.

County commissioners spent seven minutes on an issue that Melbourne officials looked at for three months on. What’s the rush? Our elected officials should not be afraid of giving people a voice. Or notice, for that matter.

This is not how things are done. This is not being a good steward.

“What they did may be legal but it’s not at all the normal process,” said attorney Joe Colombo, who has decades of experience working with local municipalities and practicing local government law. “What’s shocking is that no one in Mims had a clue this was happening.”

The fact that three county commissioners later told FLORIDA TODAY they thought the item was coming back for more discussion just makes it worse.

Another commissioner said he understood the motion but was uncertain the commission had the authority to grant Pritchett the power to halt fluoride.

This smacks of being indifferent and unprepared to govern the 602,000 residents of Brevard County.

For the 8,000 people in Mims, including several who have emailed FLORIDA TODAY in the days since the vote, unfortunately options are limited.

“This is one commissioner deciding on a health issue for an entire community,” Colombo said. “Residents of Mims can file a lawsuit regarding the unilateral termination of fluoridated water but they can not force the Commission to reconsider their vote.”

It shouldn’t need a lawsuit. The commission should rescind the order and bring it back for discussion and input from the health department and other experts and public comment. Maybe the end result would be the same but at least they’d know they were acting at the public’s behest on a topic we know from Melbourne’s experience generates significant interest.

They should do this on their own because it is the right thing and because what they’ve done just doesn’t pass the smell test.

The FLORIDA TODAY Editorial Board consists of Mara Bellaby, John A. Torres, Tim Walters and Gina Kaiser.

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