Editorial: Civic Health in Bradford; Fluoride Vote Lacked Transparency
There must be something in the water in Bradford, Vt., and we don’t mean fluoride. We refer to the fact that the town’s Water and Sewer Commission appears to be under the influence of something that has impaired its judgment and led it to ignore a central proposition of democratic government — that the public’s business must be transacted in a transparent fashion.
Those who have been following this controversy will recall that the commission voted in May to cease fluoridating the public water supply, ending a practice of nearly 30 years. It got around to notifying its customers in November.
Predictably, this upset some residents and led a number of Upper Valley dentists to wonder publicly whether the commissioners had taken leave of their senses, given that fluoridation is widely accepted as an effective public health measure to fight tooth decay. About 50 people attended a public hearing at the end of last month to debate the pros and cons of the decision, which the commission suggested had been based on financial considerations as well as questions it had about whether adding fluoride to the water supply might pose a health risk. Not exactly clear was why these questions came up after almost 30 years.
After listening to the public feedback that night, Chairman Robert Nutting said the board would mull over what it had heard and take up the matter again on Dec. 11. Good to its word, this is exactly what it did, voting to reaffirm the original decision. However, the commission had somehow neglected to list the vote on its agenda for action at that meeting, leaving some interested parties at home and in the dark.
We come today not to debate the merits of the decision to end fluoridation, but merely to wonder why the commission acted as though it were conducting a stealth campaign to end a long-established practice.
It’s hard to understand why the commission did not warn a public meeting back in May to discuss ending fluoridation before it took any action. More inexplicable was the failure to notify water users in a timely fashion. But truly unfathomable was quietly taking an unscheduled vote to reaffirm the original decision without giving the public full notice, when the commission knew full well that the question was highly controversial.
In court, that’s called contempt, but we’ll confine ourselves to observing that this does not exactly constitute best practices for conducting the public’s business. “It’s not the right way to do it,” Vermont Secretary of State Jim Condos told Valley News correspondent Jordan Cuddemi, while noting that the commissioners broke no laws. Some residents were slightly more pointed in their reaction. “Their process was striking,” said John Price. “It was wretched and embarrassing.”
This is certainly harsh criticism. And in fact, we doubt that the commission set out last May to intentionally cut out its customers and the public from the decision-making process. More probably, one thing led to another and finally to a bad outcome. But the fact remains that public officials are required to face the music when they make decisions, even when the music is discordant. Explaining yourself is part of the implicit bargain officials make with the public in return for managing its affairs.