Opioid Initiative: Council meets with officials

A preliminary proposal to create a public funding model for initiatives to fight opioid abuse was in the process of being shared in private meetings this week with Columbus City Council members individually or in small groups, a top city official said.

Such a proposal is in the process of being crafted by Columbus and Bartholomew County government officials, along with leaders from Columbus Regional Health.

Mary Ferdon, the city’s executive director of administration and community development, said her meetings with city council members will precede a public presentation next week to the Bartholomew County Council.

Ferdon canceled her original plans to make the county council presentation during a work session that government body conducted Monday.

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Ferdon said she was setting up appointments this week to provide information to city council members and allow them to ask questions prior to next Monday’s public presentation to the county council.

Communicating with council members

Ferdon said top city representatives commonly meet with council members individually when they have questions or are seeking information about a city issue. In this case, the city was reaching out to the council members to provide them with information outside of council meetings, rather than the other way around, she said.

If such interaction didn’t routinely occur in the governing process, city council meetings would be eight or 10 hours long, Ferdon said, compared to one or two hours long.

The Columbus City Council met Tuesday night in public during a regularly scheduled meeting, but the opioid issue was not on the agenda and was not discussed.

Columbus Mayor Jim Lienhoop said the issue of a public funding model or interlocal agreement between the city, county, the local health system and several private entities is in preliminary stages and city officials don’t know yet what specifically is being considered.

The city and county’s partnership in running the Emergency Operations Center — which dispatches law enforcement, firefighters, ambulances and others through the 911 system — is the closest example of a sharing agreement that the governmental agencies can model this new partnership on, Lienhoop said.

Other than that, no other city or county in the state has ever attempted to set up any type of agreement with the expansiveness of what is being considered in Columbus to address the opioid crisis, he said.

“But it’s likely to be more complicated as there are many more third-party providers, such as Centerstone and Volunteers of America, who may be integral to the process,” Lienhoop said. “And we aren’t anywhere close to discussing the money part of the interlocal agreement.”

Lienhoop said modeling of an opioid-services agreement among the government agencies, the health system and private providers on the emergency operations center may or may not work. The facility for E911 is located in the city, but funded through a cooperative agreement between the city and county with each providing funding. The county budgets for and operates the facility, and sends the city a bill for its share of the costs, Lienhoop said.

Multiple pieces of real estate may be a part of the opioid interlocal agreement, Lienhoop said. But the hub organizational structure being proposed by the Alliance for Substance Abuse Progress in Bartholomew County may call for another piece of real estate to be used beyond the Bartholomew County Jail, the mayor said. One question is who would own that property, the mayor said.

“We want to see what questions the councilmen may have,” Lienhoop said. “We don’t see having a proposal for a couple months.”

What the law requires

Indiana’s Open Door Law requires that Indiana boards and commissions, such as a city council, conduct the public’s business in public.

“With the exception of executive sessions, all meetings of the governing bodies of public agencies must be open at all times for the purpose of permitting members of the public to observe and record them,” the law states in part.

City attorney Alan Whitted said the private meetings planned between a top administration official and city council members are not a violation of the law, or spirit of the law, because a quorum of members would not be present during any of the individual meetings with Ferdon.

“The Legislature left open this avenue to communicate internally,” Whitted said. “The city believes that’s an effective way to allow an individual (council member) to have questions answered so they are comfortable with the information.”

The Columbus City Council needs to be careful, as these sessions with Ferdon could violate the state’s Open Door Law by creating a serial meeting, said Steve Key, executive director and general counsel for the Hoosier State Press Association, which represents the Indiana newspaper industry. The Republic is a member of Hoosier State Press Association.

A serial meeting is defined in the law as a series of small meetings held by a governing body in an attempt to avoid the requirements of the Open Door Law. The Indiana General Assembly amended the Open Door Law in 2007 to prohibit serial meetings, which occur when members of a governing body participate in a series of at least two meetings and all of the following conditions are met:

One gathering is attended by at least three members but less than a quorum;

The other gatherings include at least two members of the governing body;

The sum of different members participating at least equals a quorum;

The gatherings concern the same subject matter and are held within a period of seven days; and

The gatherings are held to take official action on public business.

For purposes of the serial meeting section of the law, a member of the governing body attends by being present in person or by telephone or other electronic means, excluding email.

Differing opinions

Key said he disagrees with the contention that having the private meetings doesn’t violate the spirit of the Open Door Law.

“Yes, the Legislature intended to allow for individual conversations between elected officials and government officials so an individual councilman may obtain information on a particular proposal or help a constituent, but an organized effort to present a proposal to an entire council or board in a fashion to skirt the Open Door Law robs citizens of the opportunity to see what concerns or questions were raised by their elected council and whether the concerns were adequately answered,” Key said. “In this process, the questions and answers will be lost to the public. All that’s left is an up-or-down vote with little discussion.”

Key said it raises the question as to “who or what is being protected by this secret process — the proposal, whose flaws may be concealed, or council members whose questions might reveal a political philosophy on a potentially controversial subject?”

While contending the private meetings were appropriate, Ferdon and Lienhoop said all funding requests and appropriations for opioid-abuse programs and proposals will be presented in public meetings.

Lienhoop said the meetings with the council members do not violate the spirit of the Open Door Law.

“Saying we are trying to skirt the Open Door Law is simply not true,” the mayor said. “There will be a presentation in a public meeting and the public will have a chance to ask questions.”

Decision-making process

As a city councilman before being elected mayor, Lienhoop said he would often listen to public presentations during council meetings, then go home and develop his own questions that led to his decision-making process.

Columbus City Council President Frank Miller said most of the council members don’t know much about the Alliance for Substance Abuse Progress initiative and had not attended ASAP meetings conducted during the past few months.

Describing what Ferdon would be presenting as a pre-proposal, Miller said it is similar to city information that is emailed to council members prior to each council meeting, which they receive before it is emailed to the media and placed on the city website.

“We need to know what’s coming up in a council meeting so we can do our research and talk to our constituents,” Miller said. “It gives us time to digest it.”

The Alliance for Substance Abuse Progress was formed in April as a collaboration among the city, county and Columbus-based health system to come up with a plan to fight the opioid epidemic. Proposed solutions address the crisis on three fronts: prevention and education, intervention (law enforcement, courts and government) and treatment and recovery.

In an effort to raise some of the needed monies privately, Columbus residents Mark and Wendy Elwood are offering up to $500,000 in matching funds to provide $1 million in financial support for drug-abuse educational programs.

Proposals the alliance is considering include converting a 120-bed portion of the Bartholomew County Jail into a drug treatment center for inmates, creating inpatient treatment centers, creating a detoxification facility at Columbus Regional Hospital and establishing a drug court.

Specific cost estimates have not been released, but research by alliance leaders has shown other communities are spending hundreds of thousands of dollars, if not more, for treatment programs and law enforcement and court requirements.

The expense of the county’s opioid initiative was listed as one reason county officials voted in October to increase the local income tax, drawing more money from local workers’ paychecks effective Jan. 1.

The tax will generate at least $2.1 million more for the county’s general fund beginning next year with another $2.3 million going into the county’s public safety fund, county Auditor Barb Hackman said. In total, the county will receive about $4.5 million, slightly less than first anticipated, in additional tax dollars, she said.

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Julie McClure is assistant managing editor of The Republic. She can be reached at jmcclure@therepublic.com or (812) 379-5631.