Licking County Board of Health

The Newark (Ohio) Advocate newspaper published this editorial today under the headline: “Our view: Licking County Health Board’s needle exchange vote was cowardly.” 

A public body that is supposed to be looking out for the overall health of the community should invite input and discussion when deciding critical public health matters.

That is not what we got from the Licking County Board of Health regarding the topic of a needle exchange.

There is no question such a program is controversial. While we as a board endorsed the idea previously, we did not expect it to have universal praise. However, we did expect the health board to do its job in examining the program thoroughly and openly.

Unfortunately, we got the opposite. The board rejected the program on Tuesday despite not listing it on its agenda. The board found it important enough to list the hiring of summer interns on its agenda, but not to make a major health policy decision.

The vote came after an executive session with no public discussion of the proposal, raising questions of how the board came to this decision. It would be illegal for the board to have discussed a policy topic like a needle exchange in executive session.

Even worse, a member of Harm Reduction Ohio, the group pushing for the program, spoke at the meeting, but before he left the meeting he wasn’t told a vote was forthcoming. And seemingly to ensure their decision was met by as much skepticism as possible, board members refused to answer about the vote after the meeting.

In a word, they acted like cowards. These are public officials, who receive taxpayer compensation to make decisions to benefit Licking County.

If they believe a needle exchange program is wrong, they should be proud to answer why.

Instead, they made every effort to ensure there was no public debate on their decision. Was the board’s decision based on private discussions with public officials or on reading the rants on social media? We won’t know because board members refuse to answer questions on this topic, a pattern they have repeated more than once.

There is no question we as an editorial board would have been disappointed regardless of how the health board rejected a needle exchange program. As previously stated, we believe such a program can do a tremendous amount of good in preventing the spread of disease and getting people facing addiction into treatment.

However, the greater outrage has to be that our health board doesn’t have the courage to make such a difficult decision in full view of the public. This is not acceptable.

That is why we call on Larry Friesel, Neisha Grubaugh, Carole Wachtel, Gary Wood, Chicky Dyer, Mary Billy, John Wetmore and Shelly Ellis to do better. Did not one of you think to question how this vote was handled?

If the board won’t be responsive, Newark Mayor Jeff Hall, Heath Mayor Mark Johns and other government officials who make appointments to the board must pick people who will act in an appropriate manner.

If they won’t, then it is on us as voters to select public officials who will.

Even for the readers who agree with the board’s decision to reject a needle exchange, we hope they agree that governments acting in secret only build distrust with their constituents.

Editorial Board: Benjamin Lanka, Joseph Hopkinson, Paddy Kutz, Jim Bidigare, Jim Huffman

Note: Regular board member Olivia Biggs did not participate in the discussion, writing or editing of this editorial.

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