Prickly discussion at county commission over needle exchange

Commissioners Cormier and Raines express impassioned views over sensitive subject at workshop

A Grays Harbor Board of County Commissioners workshop turned heated Tuesday while discussing policy on the county’s Syringe Exchange Program.

The board held the workshop to discuss several issues, including a resolution — submitted for the Feb. 18 meeting by Commissioner Wes Cormier — that was titled “A Resolution requiring local jurisdiction approval for the Syringe Exchange Program.”

Cormier wanted a vote on the resolution, which would give mayors in the county veto power over a health program. The state mandates that the county Board of Health oversee health programs across the county. In developing the resolution, Cormier did not get legal input for it from county attorneys, nor did he seek input on the policy from the county’s health director or health officer.

Right now, the needle exchange is overseen by county health officials, using federal money. The exchange takes place two afternoons a week, one day at county health offices in Aberdeen and the other near downtown Aberdeen, under an on ramp to the Chehalis River Bridge and near the former site of a large homeless camp.

The resolution was on the agenda for the Feb. 18 meeting but tabled until a discussion could be held at the Tuesday workshop. It was the first topic of discussion Tuesday morning.

“Last week, there was a resolution presented by Commissioner Cormier that would require the commission to request authorization or approval from any municipalities in the county for which the syringe exchange program would be located,” Commission President Vickie Raines said to open discussion. “I asked for time to be able to discuss and do some research on the resolution. … No decisions will be made today.

Commissioner Randy Ross had asked Civil Deputy Prosecuting Attorney Tracey Munger to review the resolution. Her review stated that it “runs the risk of violating the mandate” of the law.

She said the Revised Code of Washington “mandates that the Board of Health provide for the control and prevention of any dangerous, contagious or infectious diseases within the jurisdiction of the local health department. … That is a jurisdictional mandate that is set forth by the state Legislature. The local Board of Health has total jurisdiction, regardless of city lines, township lines. You are mandated to provide for the control and prevention of infectious diseases everywhere in the county.”

Raines pointed out that there was not a request by the city officially made to the Board of County Commissioners for the resolution.

“I’m open to having a conversation with the cities, if they want to … bring some folks together to have a discussion on this item. I’m happy with that,” she said. “But I do think it’s inappropriate of us to shirk our duty with the resolution that hasn’t been requested by the city and that is, in all intents and purposes (according to) Ms. Munger, illegal. Then you start asking yourself, if you get rid of the syringe exchange, then what happens next? Is it a ‘mother may I’? Do you go to the cities and ask for permission or authority to have a teen pregnancy program? A suicide prevention program? … I believe that this would set a precedent that we could never ever uphold.”

Cormier pointed out that when the program began handing out syringes in 2005, there were far fewer.

“In 2004 and 2005 they handed out several thousand needles,” Cormier said. “They’re handing out a million needles now. I think that’s problematic.”

In 2005, the first full year of the syringe exchange program, the county health department handed out 44,511 syringes. The following year, they handed out 121,971. In 2018, the most recent year from which data was available, 940,739 clean syringes were distributed.

At one point, commissioners Cormier and Raines began talking over one another after Raines questioned Cormier’s motives behind the resolution.

“I came to a meeting (Feb. 18) not knowing where (the resolution) came from, not knowing any background,” Raines said. “And even when we talked about it in the morning session, there wasn’t any background. You simply wanted it to go to a vote. And I think that you wanted it to go to a vote because it would have been voted down, and then you could ‘hurrah’ something. That’s my opinion.”

“Well … don’t,” Cormier began.

Raines: “Let me finish …”

Cormier: “But let’s …”

Raines: “Let me finish …”

Cormier: “Let’s not parse my …”

Raines: “Let me finish …”

Cormier: “… motives here.”

“Let me finish,” Raines said. “You have an issue with the health director. …”

“I have an issue with the needle exchange,” Cormier said.

“No. I believe you have an issue with the health director and her staffing and the way she does things, including the syringe exchange,” Raines said.

“Well you’re wrong,” Cormier added.

“Like I said, that’s just my opinion,” Raines continued. “I think that if we as commissioners were interested in the work that is being done and we have concerns, that if you were so concerned about the resolution, why didn’t you contact the health director? Why didn’t you contact the health officer for the county for some input?”

Cormier countered that the resolution was “administrative policy.”

Before the meeting recessed in advance of a closed door session, Cormier brought up the heated discussion.

“I’ve been on the commission now, it’s my eighth year, and I’ve never challenged the motives of another county commissioner,” Cormier said. “I am disappointed that, Commissioner Raines, you would challenge my motives in proposing. I don’t mind being wrong; if it’s against the law, I can deal with that. But to challenge my motives to bring something that I’m passionate about to the board is disingenuous at best.”

“Well, I think that the maker of the resolution should have been more prepared,” Raines said.

After stating that he didn’t go to the county health department with the resolution because he has philosophical differences with the department’s director, Cormier essentially asked for an apology and got one in front of about a dozen people who attended the workshop, including some who have taken part in protests against the needle exchange and others who have met with commissioners to discuss their objections to the program.

“I’d appreciate a better decorum next time,” Cormier said.

“I think that it’s frustrating to me when I have individuals that reach out that were made aware of the resolution and wanted to be here, were asked to be here, whatever the case maybe. But again, our county health director was not,” Raines said. “My opinion on the relationship should remain mine, and for that I apologize.

“I do think that we should do our due diligence when we bring things forward,” Raines continued. At this point, Cormier again interrupted her admitting it was a mistake to bring the resolution forward in the manner he did.

It is uncertain whether the resolution will return to an agenda anytime soon.