CITY COUNCIL RETURNS IN FALL MEETINGS; FIRST ACTION GIVES COMMUNITIES STRONGER VOICE IN DECISIONS AROUND ANY SAFE INJECTION SITES
Following its Summer recess, City Council returned to Meetings on Thursday. In its first session, Council considered and approved a controversial measure that will make it much more difficult for any “safe injection site” to be located in most neighborhoods across the city – unless neighborhood organizations are first heard from.
The measure – Bill 230432 – was sponsored by first-time Councilmember Quetcy Lozada, who represents Council’s 7th District, which includes Kensington, the hard-hit epicenter of the city’s ongoing opioids epidemic that has claimed thousands of lives in recent years.
Lozada’s legislation requires any operator of a safe injection site, where persons addicted to narcotics can bring illegal drugs and inject or ingest them without fear of arrest, to first seek a variance from the Zoning Board of Adjustment, which triggers the involvement of neighborhood organizations known as “RCOs”.
The point underlying Lozada’s bill is for the voices of communities where safe injection sites are being considered to be heard before any final siting decisions are made. When the Kenney administration and the non-profit operator of a safe injection site unveiled plans to open a facility several years ago in South Philadelphia, a community uproar scuttled the plans. Lozada’s legislation is designed to prevent such surprise sitings in neighborhood.
The legislation produced several dozen members of the public testifying both in favor of Lozada’s bill and against it on Thursday. Public health advocates testified in opposition to the bill, and in favor of safe injection sites, saying they would reduce overdose deaths and introduce people addicted to drugs to the opportunity for treatment and counseling.
One proponent of safe injection sites quoted the Bible, reminding Councilmembers that “What you do unto others, you do unto me.”
A number of residents from Kensington and Harrowgate, neighborhoods besieged as drug dealers and users from all over the region congregate on street corners and at open-air drug markets, testified in opposition to the sites and in favor of Lozada’s bill – saying their voices have every right to be heard.
Multiple Councilmembers weighed in on the legislation. Most were in favor, siding with the idea of neighborhoods deserving a voice in any siting process. One Councilmember, Kendra Brooks (At Large), opposed the bill, citing the overwhelming number of opioid deaths in Philadelphia, and saying safe injection sites deserve a chance. “This ban does nothing to address the overdose crisis, and it offers no hope to the countless people who are praying for their loved ones to live long enough to make it to recovery,” Brooks said.
Councilmember Mark Squilla, the other member whose 1st District includes a portion of Kensington, reminded his colleagues and the public that Council wasn’t voting to prohibit safe injection sites – they were voting to ensure that affected neighborhoods have a voice and a say in what goes into their communities.
Lozada’s bill passed overwhelmingly, 13-1. The vote is significant, meaning the measure has well over the required number of votes to override any possible veto by Mayor Kenney, who has generally sided with the idea of safe injection sites as an additional tool for the city to deploy in its fight against the opioid epidemic. The legislation now goes to the mayor, who has two weeks to consider it.
COUNCILMEMBER THOMAS INTRODUCES EXONERATED JUSTICE PACKAGE – REENTRY SUPPORT MEASURES FOR INDIVIDUALS CLEARED OF CONVICTIONS AFTER YEARS IN PRISON
Over the past decade, approximately 40 Philadelphians convicted of crimes have been exonerated and released from prison. Unlike many other states, Pennsylvania does not have an emergency reentry fund for the wrongly convicted. Without this type of support, cities are susceptible to lawsuits, and returning citizens are on long waiting lists for services. Councilmember Isaiah Thomas (At Large) with Community Legal Services, the Defender Association of Philadelphia, and the Pennsylvania Innocence Project, proposed legislation Thursday to give access to these supports with the goal of providing Exonerated Justice and eliminating barriers to reentry.
“Even when legally expunged from all wrongdoing, exonerated individuals lack access to crucial reentry supports to get them back on their feet,” said Councilmember Thomas. “We must give exonerated individuals a fair shot at life outside of prison, and provide the necessary guardrails for housing, education, and job opportunities. This two-part package is a crucial first step in ensuring justice for exonerated Philadelphians. I look forward to working with Community Legal Services, the Defender Association of Philadelphia, and the Pennsylvania Innocence Project to protect exonerated individuals going forward.”
The Exonerated Justice package consists of 5 components:
- Education – access to Catto Scholarships at Community College of Philadelphia expanded to allow for use in certificate and non-degree programs.
- Housing – access to Office of Supportive Housing lists for housing vouchers as well as counseling to assist with housing placements.
- Employment – amend Fair Chance Hiring legislation to include exonerated individuals to remove possible barriers to employment.
- Justice for Exonerees Fund – create an emergency reentry fund within the Managing Director’s Office to provide $500 to each exonerated Philadelphian upon release from prison.
- Reentry Support – overall assistance with applying to appropriate support and benefit programs, such as applying to Medicaid for immediate and retroactive healthcare benefits and PHL City ID for photo identification.
“The Pennsylvania Innocence Project and our clients are grateful to Councilmember Thomas for kicking off the fall 2023 session of City Council by taking this first step toward justice for wrongfully convicted people and highlighting the critical need to provide reentry to support to exonerated individuals,” said Meredith Rapkin, Executive Director of Pennsylvania Innocence Project.
When called upon, a designated social worker in an agency, community umbrella agency, Community Legal Services, Pennsylvania Innocence Project, or other partner could be relied on for the occasional recurring work. Legal entities such as the Defender Association of Philadelphia and Community Legal Services can be utilized to check expungement records and explicit protections.
“People who have been wrongly convicted deserve a fair chance to achieve economic stability, but we know that so many returning citizens, including exonerated individuals, are shut out of housing, employment, and other opportunities,” said Debby Freedman, Executive Director of Community Legal Services. “Incarceration decimates families and communities, and this legislation is an important step towards giving wrongly convicted people a fresh start as they seek to stabilize their lives.”
COUNCIL VOTES TO OVERRIDE MAYOR’S VETO OF LEGISLATION MAKING IT HARDER FOR MEDICAL MARIJUANA SITES TO TRANSITION TO RECREATIONAL POT SALES
The bill was first offered by Council Majority Leader Curtis Jones Jr. (4th District), whose West Philadelphia district is covered by the legislation, along with the 10th District in Far Northeast Philly represented by Councilmember Brian J. O’Neill.
Recreational pot is still illegal in Pennsylvania. People with a medical marijuana license can buy the drug. O’Neill’s district has a pair of medical marijuana sites, and Jones’ district has three.
Under Jones’ bill, medical marijuana dispensaries “shall not include a person authorized to dispense marijuana for recreational or other nonmedical purposes.”
The mayor vetoed the legislation Thursday, but Council immediately called up the bill for reconsideration, and passed the bill again, 14-0, effectively overriding the Kenney veto.
“Community should have the input on where things go,” Jones told reporters after the Council override vote. “When the medical side came in, they swore up and down that we will not do recreational marijuana. And as soon as the probability of recreation came past, they want to flip the script to be able to be eligible. Well, no.”
COUNCILMEMBER GILMORE RICHARDSON INTRODUCES LEGISLATION STRENGTHENING CITY’S ABILITY TO CRACK DOWN ON ILLEGAL DRUG PARAPHERNALIA SALES
Councilmember Katherine Gilmore Richardson (At-Large) this week introduced legislation to strengthen the City’s ability to crack down on businesses engaged in nuisance behavior as it relates to illegal drug paraphernalia sales.
This legislation does three things:
- Clearly establishes minimum requirements for nuisance abatement plans and specifies the ways that video monitoring should be implemented as part of these plans
- Adds a requirement that businesses engaged in nuisance behavior related to unlawful drug paraphernalia sales must sign an acknowledgement that they have violated the City’s zoning requirements, and
- States that businesses engaged in nuisance behavior related to unlawful drug paraphernalia sales must remove all drug paraphernalia from the premises
“Over the past two years, I have been working tirelessly with my colleagues in City Council and our partners at Philadelphia’s License and Inspection, Health, Law and the Police Departments to put an end to the illegal sale of drug paraphernalia in our communities,” said Councilmember Gilmore Richardson. “However, the more we seek to hold these bad actors accountable, the more they find ways to skirt the law and put our families in danger. My goal with this legislation is that by strengthening the City’s nuisance abatement plans, we will be able to have more leverage to cease business operations and establish stronger cases if cease operations orders are challenged in court.”
In 2021, Councilmember Gilmore Richardson passed legislation updating the definition of drug paraphernalia for the first time in more than 40 years. This legislation sought to crack down on businesses that set up as grocery or convenient stores claiming to sell food. However, for many of these businesses, the majority of the products they sell are drug paraphernalia and they do not have the proper licensing and are not properly zoned to sell these products.
IN OTHER COUNCIL NEWS…
COUNCIL PRESIDENT CLARKE HAS LEGISLATION INTRODUCED TO PROTECT THE RESIDENTIAL CHARACTER OF BREWERYTOWN AND SHARSWOOD. The zoning overlay legislation, similar to other overlay bills approved in Council over the last several years, aims to give longtime property owners and residents in the neighborhoods of Brewerytown and Sharswood more of a voice as development and gentrification continues to happen at a brisk pace in their communities.
GROUP PROTESTS FOR MORE AFFORDABLE HOUSING OPPORTUNITIES. On Council’s first day back, there were multiple protests outside City Hall on various subjects. One was a protest for more affordable housing options, particularly for persons with disabilities. Councilmember Brooks supported this protest by the Philadelphia Coalition for Affordable Communities and said, “When families are paying 50, 60, or even 70 percent of their household income to keep a roof over their heads, that’s not affordable housing. Philly’s housing crisis affects all of us, and giving handouts to big developers of luxury condos is not going to solve it. We need to commit to making sure homes in our city are safe, accessible, and truly affordable for the families who need it most.”