City’s ordinance should be adjusted

To: the members of Buckhannon City Council, Upshur County Commission, law enforcement, corrections, media and residents:

Some will remember me begging the City Council to not fall behind our sister cities in combating the ever-growing drug epidemic in our community and fighting for the Synthetic Drug/Bath Salt Ordinance which the city ultimately passed. While this is still my plea, I must elaborate on that request so that we can ensure our actions as a community in fighting this disease are proactive, and not reactive or worse – destructive.

I believe we all share the common desire to free our city from substance abuse and the many ramifications that transcend so many different levels. My concern is that by wanting to rid our town from both the short and long-term negative effects of substance abuse, we are turning a blind eye to our own hand in the cycle that holds us all captive.

There is a proposed “Substance” ordinance currently on the floor in City Council. This ordinance can be broken into three parts. The meth abatement requirements which make a point of both (1) the federal, EPA guidelines for methamphetamine laboratory cleanup, and (2) the State of West Virginia’s “Clandestine Drug Laboratory Remediation Act,” together with the Legislative Rule set forth as Title 64, Code of State Rules, Series 92, which provide detailed instruction and requirements for abatement procedures.

The verbiage of this ordinance does not expand/amend/change any of those laws or requirements and arguably wastes city monies repeating procedures already taking place under current law. For example: under current guidelines, law enforcement is required to notify the property owner in writing within 24 hours. This ordinance will require law enforcement to also notify the City Zoning officer, who will then duplicate the efforts of law enforcement and send another letter to the property owner. The Zoning Officer will also imitate the efforts of DHHR in posting a notice forbidding occupancy and ultimately issuing a re-occupancy permit after all requirements of the law are met, as set out in Federal and State guidelines. The Zoning Officer will be using paid time and city resources unnecessarily to repeat efforts already mandated to law enforcement and DHHR. This ordinance adds nothing for benefit.

I appreciate the Landlord Association already speaking in depth on their concerns about this ordinance and feel they covered those issues thoroughly without need of further elaboration by me, and while there has been discussion on several issues needing clarification, I still do not believe anything was substantiated that actually created something “new” that is not currently covered in state and/or federal laws and required by the property owner outside of this ordinance. I would ask the Council to reconsider allotting time and monies in an already tight budget to duplicate unnecessary actions that offer no added benefit to the city or its residents.

In regards to a fine, and the city being able to collect monies, Buckhannon already has an ordinance in place which allows the city to collect a fine for named intoxicating substances and their use, possession, creation, advertisement, or otherwise. The same current ordinance also allows the city certain measures against landlords, property owners and individuals. Therefore on this “collecting fine” portion of the ordinance, I ask the Council to reconsider making additional ordinances which simply overlay or duplicate those which are already in place thus giving an air of an “ordinance happy” city, and instead focus efforts on implementation to capitalize from penalties already in place and possibly amend the current ordinance to include methamphetamines.

The only new item this ordinance brings to the table is the registry of individuals. And thus, is my deepest concern. Constituents in this community understand that the lack of affordable housing, drug and mental health treatment, jobs and positive role models undermines our efforts to make an individual’s transition from corrections/rehabilitative institutions to the community successful. We know the costs to individual’s lives and in taxpayer dollars are too high to allow reentry work to fail. Placing a member of our community on a path for failure should never be an option.

As written, the registry will collect the names of any individual responsible for the creation of meth, contributing to, or which leads to contamination abatement of any controlled substance. The Council could not however, define contributing. They were not able to clarify if parents would be named when minors were suspected. They also could not clarify if a wife or other people in a home or neighbors would be listed as contributing if the husband (for example) was the main target but others did not inform law enforcement and allowed it to occur. Council could not give an answer as to who will determine the criteria for this list. They did clarify that a person could be placed on the list regardless of criminal prosecution, and even if there was not a conviction. They had no response as to the legal ramification of discrimination by causing someone to be placed on a public list for a 10-year period even though that person may later be in recovery, ultimately creating at-risk scenarios for the person, and the children involved by limiting a now reformed, law abiding citizen the opportunity to be gainfully employed, find suitable housing, or provide for their children – especially when there was no conviction. They did not respond to the Council being liable to act as a reporting agency for criminal history and background checks and thus observing the regulations for Federal Trade Laws, and the Fair Reporting Act guidelines.

We have a problem in Buckhannon/Upshur County. Sadly, we are becoming an epicenter for substance use and addiction. Hopefully we are starting to understand that we cannot incarcerate/ discriminate our way out of addiction and the ramifications of substance use. Moreover, studies show that the more serious an individual’s drug addiction and the longer his or her criminal record, the better Drug Courts, and re-entry initiatives work. This approach not only diverts individuals from a life of drug abuse and crime, but has been proven to reduce cost of jail and lesson family conflicts associated with domestic violence and child abuse. Also reducing the revolving door effect law enforcement must deal with when a person is simply cycled through the system and released, without treatment, back into the same environment.

Our City/County could also apply for vast amounts of grant funding for our substance use problems and the community solutions proposed through various other legislations signed into law such as: the Second Chance Act, which was designed to improve outcomes for people returning to communities from prisons and jails. This first-of-its-kind legislation authorizes federal grants to government agencies and nonprofit organizations to provide employment assistance, substance abuse treatment, housing, family programming, mentoring, victims support and other services that can help reduce recidivism (and promote recovery). However, this and other programs will not tolerate stigma or discrimination.

I am therefore asking the Council to reconsider passing this ordinance and rejecting this registry requirement and in their place, I respectfully request that the Mayor and this Council continue their efforts against this epidemic with consideration in establishing a re-entry initiative program for Buckhannon that could facilitate the attempt of the Council through this ordinance and move us away from the old adage “When the only tool you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.” This ordinance provides no solution to our problem, and in contrast ultimately, illegally discriminates against those when they choose recovery or were not convicted. It also, as pointed out above, uses time and resources to needlessly duplicate tasks already occurring.

My desire would be that this re-entry initiative advisory committee would work hand in hand with local governments, both City and County, law enforcement, grass-root organizations and community programs, to discuss the needs of our city, our expectations of our citizens in regards to substance use and future ordinances, and provide resources for those attempting re-entry into the community, recovery efforts, as well as those individuals deemed appropriate for outreach who may be in varying stages of substance use, thereby ensuring motivated individuals have the resources and community support to positively contribute to the city.

We must learn to be proactive. We must remove the barriers which catapult these individuals back into the cycle we are so desperately trying to break.

Today, I again beg this Council to not fall behind our sister cities embracing this battle head on through prevention, education, unity and open communication. While the road is long, they have realized destructive reactions, illegal discrimination, and blame are not conducive to the desired goal of the community. I ask City Council to vote against this ordinance, and against the registry of individuals. I ask that the County Commission and City Council join forces, together with the residents of this city/county, and the established community groups also desiring to get this issue under control and to move forward with discussion of an advisory re-entry committee in lieu, and in steadfast perseverance of reaching our mutual goal to take back our community from this frightening epidemic. I am also asking both City and County to make a joint proclamation, to officially declare September 2014 as National Recovery Month and support those who are taking the steps to reclaim their lives.

Every time one person moves into recovery, the community heals and we simply cannot afford to push anyone back into the cycle. If you support this effort, please contact local government.

Christine Bennett

Co-founder of H.O.P.E.

Haven of Outreach, Prevention and Education