Citing cleaner parks, Portland defends needle exchange limit

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A week after members of the public spoke against the city’s one-to-one needle exchange plan, City Manager Jon Jennings defended the program Monday, telling city councilors that parks and public areas have become much cleaner because there are fewer discarded needles.

Jennings also said the council’s Health and Human Services Committee would hold a workshop on the needle exchange program on March 4.

Portland runs the state’s only municipally operated needle exchange program. The city’s decision to continue to limit users to one-for-one exchange has made the city an outlier across the state and angered many in the public, especially because the council used several closed-door meetings to discuss the program.

The program, which provides users with clean hypodermic needles and support services, is one of 10 such programs across the state. It is the only one that has ignored an executive order from Gov. Janet Mills to ease policy restrictions during the coronavirus pandemic.

Jennings described the city’s program as successful. In January, he said, more than 30,000 needles were distributed, up from around 27,000 in January 2020.

And because of the exchange and the work of the city’s Parks and Recreation and Public Works departments, he added, the city is “no longer seeing the vast amounts of needles in parks and public spaces.”

Last year, the city stopped sending crews to clean Deering Oaks Park during the height of a homeless encampment there, because of the large number of used needles found in the park.

While Monday’s discussion was just a communication from Jennings and not an action item, the council’s quick movement on the matter upset at least one person.

During public comment, resident Joey Brunelle said he believes the council routinely avoids questions on controversial issues but will spend long periods discussing feel-good matters, such as large donations to the city.

He said councilors have discussions on more serious, controversial issues privately, either through email or text chains, and the public is never made aware of what happens in those conversations.

City accepts $125K in donations for parks

Portland City Councilors on Monday night unanimously accepted $125,000 in private donations for various improvements to the city’s public parks.

The donations included $85,000 for the expansion of the Dougherty Field Skatepark; $20,000 from the Portland Parks Conservancy to create a Portland Youth Corps, and $20,000 for improvements at East End Beach.

City Manager Jon Jennings said the beach improvements would likely fund a smaller boat ramp for use primarily by people launching canoes, kayaks, and paddleboards.

The city is planning to expand the skatepark on St. James Street from its current 8,000 square feet to around 14,000 square feet. According to a memo to the City Council from the Parks and Recreation Department, the expansion would add space and promote increased safety.

Parks, Recreation and Facilities Director Ethan Hipple said the skatepark expansion could eventually cost $350,000. Although fundraising efforts are continuing and so far more than $100,000 has been raised, he said, money from the capital improvement projects fund will probably have to make up whatever can’t be raised through donations.

Hipple also said the creation of a Portland Youth Corps would give 24 teenagers a chance to get valuable career training and environmental education, while also helping parks staff clean and plant in the city’s public areas.

Most of this $20,000 donation will go to providing each teen with a $500 stipend. Hipple said the city wants to make the program available to anyone, including students who would otherwise need summer jobs.

He said the program would include 12 teenagers between the ages of 14 and 17 in each of two months, and did not yet know if participants would be able to sign up for both months.

Overall, Hipple said, the program has about a $50,000 budget, which includes fees for transporting the participants, and an AmeriCorps fee.

— Colin Ellis

Consultants doing review of Police Department seek public input

The consulting firm hired to review the Police Department’s handling of Black Lives Matter protests in Portland last summer is seeking public input.

The city hired Minneapolis-based Clifton Larson Allen to review what happened on June 1 and June 2, 2020. Although there were a handful of protests throughout the summer, this was one of the largest, and dozens of protesters were arrested following a clash with police, who were armed with riot gear and at times used pepper spray on the crowds.

The Police Department has maintained officers did not escalate the situation, and that the clashes were caused by individual demonstrators.

The investigation is being led by Frank Rudewicz, a principal at the firm. Members of the public who want to participate can contact him by calling 617-221-1978; emailing him at [email protected], or using the confidential email [email protected].

According to a city press release, Rudewicz said while it is his preference to communicate directly with the public, he understands some people may be reluctant to do so, which is why the confidential email exists.

The firm, which has offices around the country, is expected to report back in three months. The city has set aside $40,000 for the investigation. A request for proposals issued last October elicited two responses, including the one from Clifton Larson Allen.

City Councilor Pious Ali called for the independent investigation into the police response to the protests, which followed the death of George Floyd, an unarmed Black man who was in the custody of Minneapolis police.

— Colin Ellis

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