The Aug. 8 City Council discussion on a resolution opposing a safe injection site for heroin addicts in Federal Way was not the city’s finest moment of thoughtful or reasoned debate. Actually, there was no debate, as the whole topic seemed more contrived as political theater, in the guise of public policy, for the benefit of politicians up for election this year and next. The pretext for the meeting was an inaccurate statement made by a Senate candidate in the hotly contested 45th District that actually had been corrected by the director of the health department in a July 28 conversation with Mayor Jim Ferrell, where he was told Federal Way was not under consideration.
Despite that assurance, Ferrell, with support from council members Martin Moore, Bob Celski and Mark Koppang, placed a resolution on the council agenda expressing opposition to the county selecting the city of Federal Way or the unincorporated areas nearby as a safe site. Ferrell, Moore and Celski are up for re-election this year.
The council resolution even contained language already adopted by the King County Council stating that no money could be used to open a safe injection site unless the city’s governing body voted to approve it. The only action needed by the city Aug. 8 was an announcement by Ferrell of his conversation with the health director.
Think it through. The topic was based on an inaccurate statement, confirmed 12 days prior to the meeting. The resolution included county language requiring an affirmative vote from the City Council. There was no other reason to stir up a city-wide panic about the topic other than political benefit for incumbent office holders. It was a sham.
The bigger disappointment was the manner in which the charade was staged.
The only issue before the council was opposition. If our leaders are going to call for public input on an issue of such importance that the president has called drug use and its corresponding addictions and deaths a national emergency, then shouldn’t the public receive fact-based information on both sides of the question so that they are better informed? Shouldn’t our leaders be expected to consider both sides of a question prior to reaching a conclusion?
Given the community politics, the same conclusion may well have been reached, but wouldn’t this be the proper forum for educating the public with facts and reason? Where was the high-level management representative of the department of health to explain the thinking that went into this concept? Where was the compassion for the families of those who have tried, but failed, to kick the addiction and overdosed?
One city official said no one was invited from the department of health because the city was concerned that the issue might get out of hand. Odd, since the city was responsible for creating the very public fear that was effectively resolved almost two weeks before the council meeting.
The idea from the county heath department is to establish a pilot program that provides a safe place for addicts, and is intended to reduce the number of deaths through overdose and the spread of disease such as HIV through sharing dirty needles.
Does trying to reduce deaths from an overdose of drugs seem like a worthy idea to discuss? Of course it does, and this controversial concept needs facts to guide thoughtful deliberations prior to reaching a final conclusion. But facts and thoughtful discourse were in short supply at the council meeting in the political zeal to condemn the idea and have some great quotes for their re-election. Some politicians sent a press release minutes after the meeting adjourned.
District 30 State Sen. Mark Miloscia, who is up for election next year and may face a tough race, also spoke. He is also a supporter of I-27, which would ban safe sites county wide. The crowd seemed chosen to oppose the project, and some testimony appeared choreographed more for political effect. The stories and thoughts were compelling but significantly unbalanced as an educational tool for impartial and thoughtful deliberations.
Miloscia commented about his trip to Vancouver, British Columbia, and compared their safe site users to concentration camp survivors. He also said he was “hearing sounds and rumors” of putting a site in South King County. But no facts about locations or about Vancouver’s success over 13 years.
Other jurisdictions, where balanced input was arranged, had speakers who provided positive feedback about Vancouver.
Lisa Daugaard, a member of the health department task force, speaking at a forum in Redmond, said in a Kirkland Reporter story that there are no other options available that give drug users access to a continuum of care quite as effectively as a safe consumption site. Between 2009 and 2015, heroin overdoses in King County have almost tripled from 49 to 132. Nationally, overdose deaths were up 19 percent in 2016.
The only thing close to a balanced viewpoint here was provided by council member, and candidate for mayor, Susan Honda, who is a nurse. Honda serves as an alternate to the county heath board on behalf of suburban cities, although she was not needed for the meeting when this topic was discussed.
Honda tried to stimulate discussion in hopes that a more thoughtful debate could occur in the future, but given the dynamics acknowledged she would support the resolution of opposition.
In the face of a crowd with its mind and belief already decided, few office holders would have had the courage to vote against the measure or even try to have a reasonable dialog, though that should be expected.
But in addition to helping local candidates get re-elected, the anti-safe site effort is part of a bigger plan by Miloscia and others to put I-27 on the November ballot. County elections should finish the signature count this week.
Should I-27 be on the ballot, it could bring out a large conservative vote to help defeat that same Democrat Senate candidate in the 45th District who came out of the primary leading her Republican opponent. If her lead holds in the general election, the Democrats will take control of the State Senate.
In the face of a national epidemic of drug use and avoidable deaths, a more balanced approach would have helped educate the residents to the problem that the health board is trying to solve.
But why look at facts or different points of view on a major public issue when local and regional political gain is so easy to organize? Why indeed.
The council said no, not in my back yard. But that should not be the end of the discussion. Other communities have said no but then offered to support other treatment options. Will our the mayor and council do the same?
Saving even one life should be worth the effort and investment. And how will residents react when they realize that some of them were simply used as pawns in a bigger one-sided chess game?
It’s been said that a politician thinks of the next election, whereas a statesman thinks of the next generation. Which were our leaders thinking about? Our children’s future or their election?
Federal Way resident Bob Roegner is a former mayor of Auburn and retired public official. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.