A Haines committee tasked with public safety oversight wants to broaden its duties to address the opioid crisis. But some assembly members see the proposed changes as too reactionary.
Earlier this year, the public safety commission held a discussion on drug addiction and its local impacts. A few months later, Police Chief Heath Scott recommended the group make some changes to its mission and makeup, cultivating a focus on public health.
His reasoning is that policing today has a lot to do with drug abuse.
Scott recommended the public safety commission change its name to include public health. He also suggested adding three non-voting members who represent the local clinic, behavioral health counseling, and school district.
“This isn’t something that we were talking about planning to do,” Scott said. “This is something we do on a daily basis.”
Adding public health to the commission’s purview requires changing code. And that is up to the assembly.
“We shouldn’t be changing the structures of our government for one issue,” said Assembly member Tom Morphet during a discussion of the public safety commission’s desired changes. “We’re a town of 2,500 people. I’m confident we can address policing on the opioid issue in a humane way without changing the structure of our government.”
Assemblywoman Brenda Josephson also resisted the request. She said the public safety group was created because of the town’s “troubled” relationship with the police department.
An audit of the department in 2015 found it suffered from a lack of vision and oversight that led to broken trust with the community. The current police chief and most of the officers were not with the department at the time.
Josephson offered a different idea: forming a separate drug prevention task force. Skagway is one community that has taken that approach.
“I really think that it should be directed in a different manner,” Josephson said. “Rather than changing the structure of our government.”
The assembly voted 4-2 to remove the name change from the ordinance. That means the public safety commission will not be rebranded the public health and safety commission. Stephanie Scott and Sean Maidy were the only members supportive of the new name.
“I think this is more taking away the – not taking away the enforcement, but concentrating more on the cause, not the effect,” Maidy said.
But the assembly didn’t shut down the code revisions altogether. The request to add three ex-officio members representing the clinic, behavioral health and school district is still on the table. There is one more hearing on the matter Nov. 7.
At the most recent meeting of the public safety commission, members expressed growing concern about drug addiction in Haines. Judy Erekson and Michael Fullerton said a recent heroin bust at the post office brought the issue home. A 19-year-old and 24-year-old are being charged in that case.
“I think that’s why we’re all here,” Fullerton said. “I think we all want to act as a community. And I think the discussion should be centered around increasing the scope of that and encouraging as many people to be involved in the discussion as possible.”
The sweeping devastation of opioid addiction has been declared an emergency in the state and nationally. President Trump recently proclaimed the crisis a public health emergency. Alaska Gov. Bill Walker issued a disaster declaration in February.
On the local level, the public safety commission hasn’t yet developed a plan to address opioid abuse. As the group considers its goals, it has two seats to fill. Applications are available at the borough office.