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Issues worth debating

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A 12 percent turnout of potential voters for a local election is nothing to write home about.

That’s the estimated number from this week’s City Council primary in Watertown. Of the 11,918 registered voters in the city, 1,262 of them went to the polls Tuesday while 174 submitted absentee ballots.

But while such a turnout isn’t an achievement by any stretch, it’s also not surprising. There were no lightning-rod issues that galvanized residents en masse either for or against any particular candidate, not enough to keep someone from advancing to the general election anyway.

There were, though, a few issues that boosted the campaign of one of the two City Council incumbents over the other. Councilwoman Teresa R. Macaluso garnered 575 votes, the most of any of the six candidates, according to unofficial totals (not counting absentee ballots). Councilman Jeffrey M. Smith received 454 votes while newcomers Stephen A. Jennings and Cody J. Horbacz netted 452 and 342 votes, respectively.

This primary didn’t appear to be stricken with an anti-incumbent sentiment. But Ms. Macaluso captured 121 more votes than did Mr. Smith in an election with a low turnout, which strongly suggests a modicum of dissatisfaction among the electorate.

Mr. Smith has been criticized for his role in the council’s January 2012 decision not to renew the contract of longtime City Manager Mary M. Corriveau. He also supported an unpopular move earlier this year to revise the city’s so-called roommate law.

Ms. Macaluso was on the opposite side of Mr. Smith on both of these votes, and the primary results showed stronger support for her candidacy. That’s a lesson Mr. Smith should take to heart heading into November’s vote.

There are other issues, however, that demand more attention. And the four candidates advancing to the general election must make good use of their time to distinguish themselves on these matters.

One of the most pressing concerns in the city is its stock of rental property. Much of what we have now compares poorly with new housing developments. The owners of these properties must enhance their structures, and the candidates should highlight what role they see the city playing in this process.

Rodney J. LaFave, a City Council candidate who failed to advance to the general election, said he would like to see a rental property registry discussed among council members. This idea has met with mixed results in various communities, but it certainly is worth an examination.

Of all the remaining candidates, Mr. Jennings had the most articulate position on the issue of adding fluoride to the city’s supply of drinking water. Given his years of experience in public health, he paid particular attention to the points made by those who would discontinue the practice. After comparing these arguments with the scientific literature on fluoridated water, Mr. Jennings concluded that keeping the status quo was in the best health interests of Watertown residents.

While they had some questions about its effectiveness, Ms. Macaluso and Mr. Smith said they were open to further debate about the fluoridation program. Mr. Horbacz also said he hasn’t yet made up his mind. There is no doubt that the health benefits of fluoridated water far outweigh the minor drawbacks, and candidates must get off the fence and declare where they stand.

These are just a few of the concerns that the candidates must address. We look forward to a lively debate leading into the general election this fall.

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