The Portland City Council met behind closed doors with its top attorney Wednesday night to discuss its legal rights and duties regarding the city-run Needle Exchange Program that provides clean syringes, overdose reversal drugs and other harm-reduction services to intravenous drug users.

The council’s vote to hold an executive session was unanimous. The Press Herald objected, both in writing before the meeting and verbally during the meeting, because the city’s notice was too vague and lacked sufficient explanation about why it could not be discussed in public.

The council emerged after nearly two hours in closed session and adjourned without any discussion.

The private session was called after the Press Herald began questioning why Portland’s syringe services program was the only one in the state maintaining its restrictive policies even though an executive order issued by Gov. Janet Mills gives needle exchanges more flexibility to meet the needs of their clients. The order, which is in response to the coronavirus pandemic, allows programs to expand outreach locations, adjust hours and waived limits on the number of clean syringes clients could receive.

Mills order relaxed state rules that normally require a one-for-one exchange of dirty syringes for clean ones.

Mayor Kate Snyder said Tuesday that the session was scheduled late last week – days after the Press Herald began questioning the city’s decision. Snyder said the city moved the meeting up from Feb. 1 to Wednesday in response to a story published Tuesday.

The city refused to provide additional information to the newspaper or the public to justify the closed session, other than to say it did not involve a lawsuit or a personnel issue. A city spokesperson simply copied a portion of the state statute to justify the session.

But that’s not enough, according to Sigmund Schutz, a First Amendment attorney who also represents the Press Herald. Schutz said the statute requires the city to be more specific.

“They are supposed to state the precise nature of their business and merely quoting the statute doesn’t cut it,” Schutz said.

Danielle West-Chuhta, the city’s top attorney, assured the council that the subject was appropriate for the executive session, but offered no details. She noted that the needle exchange is a city-run program that operates under state rules, and the council has the right to know all of its legal rights and duties with regard to that program.

West-Chuhta said that she would shut down any conversation that dealt with general policies or other topics that needed to be discussed in public. She did not anticipate any council action after the meeting.

City Councilor Nicholas Mavodones said the council was equipped to police itself, since the councilors have been trained in the state’s Freedom of Access Act.

“We’re in a position to ensure we talk about things that are appropriate in an executive session,” Mavodones said. “We do not talk about things that should be talked about in the public.”

However, the council’s track record of complying with public meeting laws is mixed.

In 2017, councilors boarded one of the city’s fireboats on a beautiful late-summer afternoon for a tour of Fort Gorges without providing public notice, which is required when three or more elected officials assemble for city business. The tour came to light when a councilor posted photos on social media, showing seven of the nine councilors in attendance.

Rather than admit fault, the city defended its actions, saying that public notice wasn’t needed.

In 2019, councilors attended two site walks at the invitation of area residents without notifying the public. The site walks were done in the days leading up to a controversial vote about where to locate a new, 200-bed homeless shelter. Each site walk – one in Libbytown and one in Riverton – were attended five councilors.

When questioned by a reporter, West-Chuhta declined a request to discuss her legal advice to the council and did not respond to questions sent via email about whether she thought the site walks violated state law.

The Press Herald filed a public records request, which remains unfilled nearly two years later.

At Wednesday night’s meeting, Kellogg Street resident Joey Brunelle also questioned the need for an executive session to discuss the Needle Exchange Program. Brunelle helped lead an effort against City Manager Jon Jennings’ 2016 plan to close down the India Street Health Center, which hosts the exchange.

“The public is definitely interested in knowing what’s going on,” Brunelle said. 

Syringe services programs are a proven harm-reduction strategy for intravenous drug users. They provide clean syringes to people who inject drugs to prevent the spread of infectious diseases that come with needle sharing, including hepatitis C and HIV. And they are also a way of building trust and relationships with clients, so they can easily access treatment when they are ready.

Maine has 10 state-sanctioned and regulated syringe services programs, which have traditionally been referred to as needle exchanges. Portland’s is the only municipally run program in the state and the only program not to expand services under the executive order Mills issued in March to ensure access to services while minimizing potential exposure to the coronavirus.

A city spokesperson last week said the increased number of syringes being carried by people staying at the homeless shelter and the number of dirty syringes being found in public prompted the city to conduct an audit of its Needle Exchange Program in the fall to ensure that staff and volunteers were adhering to the city’s more restrictive policies. She said the audit showed that the staff was not abiding by the one-for-one exchange policy.

Mills’ order aligns with recommendations from the U.S. Centers For Disease Control, American Medical Association, the National Health Care for the Homeless Council and substance use treatment providers.

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