Council Finalizes New Deputy Chief Position; Approves New District Map, Licensure of Needle Exchange Program

By Shanet Clark

Striking Cabell Hospital workers and Special Metals steelworkers gathered at the Huntington City Council meeting Monday night as council grappled with redistricting, easement changes, a new police management position and needle exchange opioid harm reduction strategies. 

Council members Patrick Jones, Tia Rumbaugh and Bob Bailey spoke in strong and emotional terms in support of the striking union workers at Special Metals and Cabell Hospital, using their time to plead with management to return to the bargaining table with equitable contracts for the striking workers. Three striking workers addressed council during public comments and about thirty strikers watched the session from the rotunda, often cheering Rumbaugh, Jones and especially Bob Bailey's comments in support of local health and industrial workers' concerns. 

After a detailed appeal by public health officials and the Mayor, City Council voted to approve a license for the Cabell County Health Department's harm reduction (needle exchange) program, as required under a new state law.

Mayor Steve Williams recalled "in the summer of 2014, I noticed that Huntington had an addiction opioid and crime crisis, and people didn't feel safe in their neighborhoods." He said that it made him "physically sick to state that Huntington was 'the opioid addiction center of the country' -- but if you name it, you can own up to it, and then you can address it." He recalled organizing a city office of Drug Control Policy which urged him to employ "harm reduction, evidence based strategies," including a contentious needle exchange program. Mayor Williams said that his initial reaction was "there is no way in Hades this is going to fly in this community," but that today the needle exchange program was an important point of contact with this population and significantly helped getting people into treatment and avoiding the hepatitis, HIV and sepsis associated with sharing needles, "and we cannot take our arsenal away from the front lines." 

Dr. Michael Kilkenny, the Cabell Huntington Health Department's chief medical officer took questions from council members about the needle exchange. He said that nationally the CDC is reporting 19 and 23 percent increases in opioid deaths in 2019 and 2020, with over 100,000 deaths nationwide this year. Kilkenny was closely questioned by council members about the specifics of the situation in Huntington. He said the best estimates were that there are about 1,800 people in Huntington injecting street drugs, and that about half, or 900 people, are active in the harm reduction needle exchange program at the health department. Council members asked Dr. Kilkenny  how many needles were returned and he suggested about 85% were returned, and that new patients were usually given a sterile packet of ten syringes, which last approximately three or four days. While the needles are not barcoded individually, they are able to determine whether or not the returned needle was originally distributed by the program. He stressed that Cabell is one of only two certified health departments in the state and that the harm reduction needle exchange was an evidence based "best practice" tactic and that it not only lowers HIV and Hepatitis cases, it serves as a point of contact with the addicted population, often leading individuals to ask for rehabilitation and treatment. Council member Rumbaugh asked if "injecting diabetics" could receive needles, and Dr. Kilkenny responded that while that wasn't a major priority "indigent diabetics are often provided syringes."

Council members expressed concerns about the program drawing addicts to Huntington, and Dr. Kilkenny said his staff was limited by law to not ask questions about users' residency. DuRon Jackson, council at large, pressed Mayor Williams on the "downside" of the program, suggesting that the program "enabled" drug addiction. Williams responded, "The only downside is if Council does not approve this State license and support the program. My understanding of the term enabling is it is when one encourages someone to do something they otherwise wouldn't do. People walking down the alley looking for a needle will pull one out of a mud puddle and stick it in their arm, they will do that, so we are not 'enabling' them."

The resolution providing a statement of support for the licensure of the Cabell Huntington health department harm reduction program then passed with council members Tyler Bowen, Dale Anderson and Todd Sweeney voting "no" in the roll call. 

The other major piece of city business was the approval of a new 2020 Census- based city council district map. Bailey strongly advocated for the new map, stating that under the old map there were population imbalances of up to 2,200 residents and this had been corrected by cnforming to city policy requiring compactness, the retention of neighborhoods, communities of interest, historic district boundaries and that all districts fall within 5 percent of proportional parity.

The new map was unanimously approved.

Ordinance 2021-O-27 also passed on first reading. The language of this agenda item appeared to close part 26th Street near Guyan Avenue -- but as explained by City Planning Commissioner Jennie Lockman the ordinance will only cede a 12 foot wide grassy strip easement 160 feet long to a neighboring industry, (Rubberlite) without impacting access or the street itself. Rubberlite will pay the assessed $3,300 to the city and apparently will submit plans for plant expansion contingent upon the easement's transfer. 

In other business, Deputy Chief-elect Phil Watkins spoke in favor of extending a special agreement between the city and the county providing a uniformed resource officer for Huntington High School at Cabell County's expense; and it passed unanimously. 

Resolutions to access $115,000 in West Virginia Housing Development funds for low income housing and demolitions passed on second reading.

The Mayor announced free parking for holiday shopping on Friday November 26th and every Friday in December, with a Christmas Tree lighting to take place Tuesday, November 30th at 6pm at the Mountain Health Arena.

In poignant remarks, Fire Chief Jan Rader nominated Captain Runyon and Private Simpkins for the Medal of Valor, and Captain Blanton and Private Roy for the Medal of Merit, for their efforts to evacuate and save the life of an entrapped citizen in a heavy residential fire in the 900 block of 14th Street on the morning of August 30th, 2021.

Finally, Council passed on second reading the ordinance creating the position of Deputy Chief of Police. Mayor Williams stated that it was Colder who asked for "another captain" to assist him in both community policing and inter-agency coordination, but since the city had streamlined the police department by eliminating captains' positions, he envisioned a new position of Deputy Chief specifically for Watkins to share departmental management with Colder. Todd Sweeney and Tyler Bowen voted "no" on creating the new Deputy Chief's position.

Chairman Mike Shockley was absent from Monday’s meeting.