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Fight continues over needle exchange

Date: 7/25/2012

By G. Michael Dobbs

HOLYOKE — The issue of a needle exchange is far from over in Holyoke as last week, members of the City Council said the manner in which the needle exchange was instituted was not legal.

President City Council Kevin Jourdain told Reminder Publications that approval of the exchange by merely a vote of the Board of Health and the mayor's approval went against the legal opinion established in 1996 by then Acting City Solicitor Daniel Glanville when the subject of establishing a needle exchange in the city was first addressed.

The legislation that authorized communities to have a needle exchange stipulated that "local approval" was needed. At that time in 1996, Jourdain sought an opinion about exactly what the phrase meant.

Citing decisions in two cases, Glanville wrote, "Considering the two propositions listed above, it is my opinion that local approval shall mean the mayor and the City Council of the city of Holyoke."

Glanville added the Legislature did not "intend to give the power of local approval to a local board of health."

The needle exchange, located on Main Street and operated by Tapestry Health, was started with a vote of the Board of Health and Mayor Alex Morse.

Jourdain has asked the city's Law Department to rule on the Board of Health's action and would seek an injunction to close the needle exchange if the Law Department doesn't act.

The circumventing of the City Council in this case "is a bigger issuer beyond needle exchanges," Jourdain said.

He called Morse's move "sneaky."

"He did this behind our backs," Jourdain added

Jourdain said besides the 1996 effort to establish a needle exchange there was an additional campaign in 2001 that failed to win approval.

Referring to the 16 years the issue has been in the public eye, Jourdain said, "When he [Mayor Alex Morse] was shaking a rattle, I was down here debating this."

City Councilor Linda Vacon also opposed the way the needle exchange was implemented ands charged the lack of notation on the Board of health's meeting agenda about the exchange was a violation of the state's Open Meeting law.

"It was buried under other business," she said.

In a letter to Reminder Publications, Vacon wrote, "While it is a commendable goal to reduce illness, the scourge of drug addiction with its collateral damage from robbery, assault, and deaths, as drug addicted individuals seek any and all avenues to satisfy their drug cravings, is unaffected by this program.

"What happened to the image of Holyoke and the marketing for businesses downtown? Who will be the first to open their new business next to the needle exchange? This is hardly the image we need to renew our city."

She added, "There is already a needle exchange in Northampton. For those who are drug addicted, syringes are readily available. Let's not enable the very behaviors that take the majority of time and effort by our dedicated police force."

Morse said that any claim the move was illegal is "totally false."

He explained the State Board of Health ruled that "local approval" doesn't involve the City Council.

"This is a public health issue. It's important to keep politics out of it. It's not up to the City Council," he said.

Acknowledging the effort to over-turn the decision, Morse said, "Certain individuals can do what they want, but the needle exchange is here to stay."