THERE was a last ditch attempt to shelve and forget a community poll at the December 4 council elections to gauge opinion on fluoridating the Port Macquarie-Hastings water supply.
Cr Rob Turner again pleaded with councillors to vote against committing up to $90,000 of ratepayer money to a non-compulsory, non-binding poll on an issue that is mandated by NSW Health and not council.
Cr Geoff Hawkins sent a message directly to the community during the August 4 ordinary council meeting, urging residents to focus solely on voting in the best council for the region at the next election.
He said the community poll on fluoride was an unnecessary distraction on an issue council has no control over or plan to act on.
Cr Peter Alley said a council-led community poll is futile, adding any push to have fluoride removed from the water supply must be championed directly with the state government through the region's members of parliament.
Member for Port Macquarie Leslie Williams even stood by her position on the poll this week, saying it was an "appalling" waste of ratepayer money when there are many other projects across the LGA requiring urgent attention post-floods.
After another round of rigorous debate, the final vote on the matter was split.
Mayor Peta Pinson used her casting vote once again and the community poll, supported by councillors Pinson, Lisa Intemann and Sharon Griffiths, will proceed.
The matter was brought before the council after NSW Health Minister Brad Hazzard expressed concerns in a letter to the mayor about the wording of the poll question.
The poll initially aimed to ask residents to vote yes or no: 'Would you prefer that council stop adding fluoride (hydrofluorosilicic acid) to the public water supply?'.
The Minister said the question is inconsistent with other community polls on fluoride and urged council to reconsider the wording to the more commonly asked 'Do you agree with adding fluoride to the water supply to try and prevent tooth decay?'
The Minister was also concerned that council intends to ask residents if it wants fluoride permanently removed from the water supply, despite the fact council has not met its requirement to add fluoride for the last 18 months.
Council confirmed that it paused fluoridation processes in late 2019 in response to the severe drought and level 4 water restrictions. As a result, dam levels diminished considerably.
The Minister said while council resumed fluoridation of the Wauchope drinking water supply at the Wauchope Treatment Plant on 9th April 2021, it has not recommenced fluoridation of the Hastings district water supply despite a recommendation to do so by the Public Health Unit, following advice received by NSW Health from the EPA.
Council noted the Minister's correspondence.
Deputy mayor Lisa Intemann successfully moved to retain the chemical name hydrofluorosilicic acid in the agreed and final revised poll question which will now read: "Do you want Port Macquarie-Hastings Council to permanently cease adding fluoride (hydrofluorosilicic acid) to the drinking water supply"?
Fluoridation began in the Hastings in February 2012 after construction and completion of the fluoridation plant, which was made possible with state government funding of $1.8 million.
The fluoridation of the water supply is mandated under the direction of NSW Health and council acts under that direction as the water authority.
It costs the council about $280,000 on average each year to add fluoride to the water supply.
Cr Pinson said the issue has "absolutely rattled" the community and has polarised views for too long. A community poll she said, is not about determining an 'either or' position, but simply an engagement piece to give the community a voice.
"Unless we know what people are thinking, how are we able to make decisions, especially a decision as important as the addition of a chemical to drinking water on their behalf," Cr Pinson said.
"Our community has changed over last decade. We haven't engaged with our community in relation to this. We were in administration and there was no-one to make the decision on behalf of the residents.
"Although, the community back in those days actually did say they did not want fluoride added. NSW Health through the state government directed council to do that."
Cr Pinson said regardless of the cost, the election is the most appropriate time to gauge community opinion.
Cr Intemann has been leading discussion on fluoride since 2004. She said it is important residents are aware of the correct chemical terminology for the fluoride added to the water supply.
Cr Intemann saidhydrofluorosilicic acid has a different source than the sodium fluoride commonly used in toothpaste and can have a different effects on the body.
"I have now looked into this for 17 years. Even though NSW Health came to us in 2004 and said we were suffering a decay crisis, examination of the actual dental statistics of that time showed that the largely unfluoridated Mid North Coast had lower rates of tooth decay than four out of the five 100 per cent fluoridated Sydney health regions," Cr Intemann said.
She referred to the Cochrane Review of 2015 of dental studies which concluded the quality of evidence in favour of fluoridation was low and unreliable and there was no evidence of a significant reduction in tooth decay because of water fluoridation.
"Then there is this notion there is nothing we can do about it. If there is nothing we can do about the quality of water we provide to our community then I fail to see our validity here. We do in fact have a charter to take care of the wellbeing of our community, and this is a matter of wellbeing," Cr Intemann said.
Cr Griffiths said a collaboration of councils in Queensland were able to push for change on the issue of fluoride, so it is possible.
Cr Turner said the community poll should be worded as a poll on "wasting council's money".
"Whatever happens as a result of the poll, council is still mandated by NSW legislation to fluoridate the community water supply. That's part of the licensing terms for our licence as a water supply authority. I think everyone knows that," Cr Turner said.
"Apart from the fact this could be a poll about anything - it could be a poll about 'I believe earth is flat'. But it's not, it's a poll on fluoridation and it puts into question the significant public health benefits fluoridation gives to our community."
Cr Turner said local health professionals have commissioned a petition opposing the poll and reinforcing the benefits of a fluoridated water supply. The group has also requested a review of the information published on council's website which they say is "misleading and inaccurate".
Cr Hawkins asked what council is proposing to do with the poll results.
The mayor said that would be up to the newly elected council to decide.
"The reason we have a local government election is so the community can choose the best people to represent the community, to represent our interests and to govern. It's not to go to polls," he said.
"My first concern is this poll ... where it's over a matter where we have no control and can't do anything as a consequence of it. It detracts from the main purpose that we have an election which is what everybody should be concentrating on.
"My second objection ... I don't believe it's the wisest expenditure of the community's money. I cannot under any circumstance justify this expenditure. I believe it's a great mistake to go with this poll."
Cr Alley agreed. He said all the poll is measuring "is the number of people who will be disappointed".
"In every other community engagement we ask a question for a good reason, therefore there is some value in spending community money to determine the community's point of view. In this issue, there is no value in asking the community what their opinion is because we can't change it," he said.
"It's a decision made at a state government level. If people want it changed they should be lobbying state members of parliament, not us."
What else is making news?
Our journalists work hard to provide local, up-to-date news to the community. This is how you can continue to access our trusted content: