Council obliged to achieve fairness - Fluoridation proponents short signatures to go on ballot due to wrong information

Spokesman-Review Editorial

August 6, 2004

Spokane, WA - It's astonishing that in Spokane, the referendum city, a group of sophisticated activists and city officials could be so wrong on a fundamental question about ballot issues.

And on an issue as polarizing as fluoridation.

Advocates of a proposal to put fluoride in the municipal water supply met with city officials, to discuss what they needed to do. The meeting ended with a shared understanding that the proponents needed to collect signatures from 2,573 registered city voters 5 percent of the votes cast in the city's last general election to qualify their proposal for the Nov. 2 ballot. They got 3,100.

If the upcoming vote, now less than 90 days away, were a general election, everything would probably be fine. But don't let the presidential, congressional, legislative and gubernatorial campaigns fool you. City general elections are held in odd-numbered years; the vote on Nov. 2, 2004, will be a special election for city issues.

That point had escaped the participants in that City Hall meeting. The signature-gathering requirement, it seems, is actually 15 percent, leaving the fluoridation proponents some 5,000 signatures short.

The city has apologized for the inconvenience, but there may be more it could do. Namely, the City Council could put the matter on the ballot on its own.

Unfortunately, there's more at stake than making up for a blunder. Tinkering with the law shouldn't be done lightly, and putting measures on the ballot is difficult for a reason. If the city doesn't insist that fluoridation supporters meet the requirements now, what will they tell the next group with a petition to present?

This organization, Fluoridation Works, has a valid gripe. Members acted in good faith on bad information from an official source. But group leaders had an obligation to do their own research, and it appears they independently came up with the same misunderstanding. Even if they had accurate information, there's no way to know that they could have met the full signature requirement.

City officials have a duty to preserve the integrity of the initiative system. But when their own election bureaucracy dispenses faulty advice about its requirements, the city incurs a responsibility to achieve fairness. Ideally, this unfortunate situation won't recur and the concerns about a precedent will be moot.

It's an imperfect solution to an unfortunate situation, but the City Council should give the fluoridation backers the vote they thought they had achieved.



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