CHARLESTON, W.Va. (WCHS/WVAH) — The needle exchange program in Kanawha County has been a hot topic and a top issue in the Charleston mayoral race. The controversial issue was discussed last Thursday at the Charleston Public Safety Council Mayoral Candidate Forum between Republican JB Akers, Democrat Amy Goodwin and Independent Andy Backus that focused primarily on issues involving public safety.
The program was suspended in March, but just last week, ahead of that debate, the president of the health board, Brenda Isaac, told the Charleston Gazette-Mail that the program would not be coming back, no matter who was mayor.
The Eyewitness News iTeam started questioning board members if something had happened, or a vote had been taken, prompting that decision. That led to the discovery of a chain of e-mails between board members regarding the issue in the days leading up to the debate.
On Tuesday, Sept.11, board member Martha Walker e-mailed other board members to let them know she would be unavailable for the September meeting. She went on to say, "because of all the new interest in the needle exchange generated by today's media coverage, including Facebook, I feel that it is important for the entire board to have a robust discussion about the needle exchange and what action the board needs to take. I am not sure what has caused this renewed interest, but I don't think we need to be in the crosshairs again."
In response to that e-mail, Isaac e-mailed board members a response. She wrote, "As for the article discussing needle exchange, it has come about because of the safety forum that is happening this Thursday evening with the mayoral candidates."
Isaac went on to say, "It has been confirmed that there are some pretty sleazy ads going out calling Amy Goodwin the "needle lady" and weak on crime. They are intimating that we have made "secret" plans to restart our program and bring back the needles if she is elected. When the reporter called me, I felt it was imperative to unequivocally state that Kanawha Charleston Health Department has no intention of bringing back the Syringe Exchange part of the Harm Reduction program. That won't stop the mayor's antics but nothing will since the polls are showing his candidate is behind and apparently they don't have any other issues to tout."
The e-mail continued, "Regardless of what we do they will discuss it but at least Amy can say it is a dead issue but the substance abuse issue is still alive and growing and isn't going away and we all need to be working together to do whatever we can to combat that problem. No matter what candidate you support, I don't want KCHD to be maligned with lies to support anyone."
In another response following Isaac's e-mail, board member Bobby Reishman responded, "I don't think we can do ourselves any good by releasing the report or having discussions with reporters. The needle exchange is a health issue not a political issue and it is too bad it has become one. I would also suggest not e-mailing anything regarding political issues as they are public record."
Eyewitness News reporter Kallie Cart said to Issac, "We had talked a little bit about, you know, the politicizing of the issue but then here, in this e-mail, it's very political on your part?"
"It is. It is. That was, that was, just, you know, a stupid comment on my part. Like I said, that I might have made in a private conversation where I could have explained myself but e-mails aren't like that," she said.
Isaac is now apologizing for her comments in the e-mail, saying she was making a personal statement and not speaking on behalf of the board.
"I was particularly frustrated that a program that's not in existence anymore, and that there are no plans to bring it back, and yet it's being used in a negative light, during a campaign, to do negative advertising against a candidate," Isaac said.
Isaac said she's been longtime friends with Goodwin and supports her as a candidate for mayor but was clear she doesn't work on the campaign and learned about the polling and alleged advertisements mentioned in the e-mail through friends.
"My frustration was more that we are doing so much and have so much to do, that I would really like to be able to see us put this issue behind us," she said.
As for the needle exchange program, Isaac said that is part of the past and won't be coming back to the Kanawha Charleston Health Department.
"No one on the board thinks that's a good idea because we need to be working with the community, in cooperation with the community and with the community's support, in any program that we do. And we can't do a program that there's a perception out there that we're doing things that they don't like. There's no intention on our part in starting up that program again," she said.
In a statement to Eyewitness News, Goodwin said the e-mails "obviously show frustration over the fact that the mayor and his hand-picked candidate want to blame others for their failures. Mayor Jones and Mr. Akers are afraid of their record on crime and drugs and that is why they have been misrepresenting my position. Since they’ve been in charge violent crime is up 44%, murder is up 85%, aggravated assault is up 58% and rape is up 44%. That has happened on their watch—not mine. For Jones and Akers to claim they are tough on crime and drugs is like Don Blankenship claiming to be tough on mine safety."
Meanwhile, Akers said in a statement Monday night that he is the only mayoral candidate "who called for closure of the Health Department’s disastrous needle program before it shut down. Because of her decades long career in politics I expect Mrs. Goodwin to spin her response and personally attack me rather than address the facts. I’ll stick to facts. Mrs. Goodwin and her political ally at the Health Department, Mrs. Isaac, are trying to protect Mrs. Goodwin from her record on the needle program. This was admittedly done to influence last week’s safety forum and ultimately the election. However, Mrs. Goodwin is on record saying that not only “must” the needle program continue, she incredibly called for its expansion. This included her call for exploration of “supervised” or so-called “safe injection sites,” which are public spaces for people to shoot up with illegal drugs. These sites are not currently legal in any city in America. This attempt to deceive voters to win an election, regardless of public safety, is exactly why I was solely endorsed by local Police, Fire and EMS. Mrs. Isaac’s email is catastrophic for Mrs. Goodwin’s campaign."