The city’s health and human services director Donna Nelson-Ivy moved from being a staunch defender of a troubled needle exchange program that inspired repeated protests to try to shield the Well of Hope from health inspectors, reveal documents released by the municipal government as part of an open records request.
Nelson-Ivy sent a flurry of emails to health officer Paul Persaud demanding to know why health inspectors were at 207 Broadway late last month. Inspectors were conducting a routine inspection of the facility which failed a health inspection in 2016, records show.
“This is a directive, I want the answer to my questions by 10:00 a.m. this morning,” Nelson-Ivy wrote to Persaud. She also wanted to know who complained about the facility, inspectors involved, and findings.
Inspectors found extensive mold growth inside the kitchen cabinets, ceiling, and floor. There were also obstructed hand washing facilities, no running hot water, no paper towels, and debris and dust inside the refrigerator. Missing tiles on the floor indicates a possible vermin problem, according to reports filed by inspectors.
A second failed inspection was issued and the kitchen was ordered shut. Nelson-Ivy’s emails followed text messages from Jerome King, director of the Well of Hope.
“Last week your health inspectors came out to check our building. I don’t know if that was the State’s doing or these so-called community leaders,” King texted Nelson-Ivy on Aug. 31, 2017.
“What date [sic] name of inspector probably Robert Shaw [sic] & why did they go – who complained & what was the findings – I am going to ask Paul all of the same questions & copy you on the email & have him reply all with answer. Thanks for the heads up. Never ends!” replied Nelson-Ivy.
King told Nelson-Ivy two women conducted the inspection on Monday. Both checked upstairs, downstairs, and focused on the kitchen, he told her. Neither said what prompted the investigation.
Nelson-Ivy wanted to identify the inspectors. She replied, “Black & white – you didn’t ask for their id’s [sic] African accent & Latina???”
King wasn’t present during the inspection, he told Nelson-Ivy. He then confirmed Nelson-Ivy’s description.
Nelson-Ivy disparagingly described both inspectors as “2 of Paul’s followers” to King.
On Sept. 1, 2017, King texted Nelson-Ivy again. He told her inspectors had returned to the Well of Hope. When asked about his text messages to the director, King on Friday said, “I don’t know what you’re talking about.” He repeatedly said he was “blindsided” by the failed inspections and the records released by the city.
Nelson-Ivy wanted to know who. King told her Jennifer Okpalaugo-Odih. Nelson-Ivy told King to put Okpalaugo-Odih on the phone.
When contacted for comments late last week, Nelson-Ivy had her secretary tell a reporter she was in a meeting. When a reporter demanded the health director provide an explanation for interfering with an inspection, Nelson-Ivy suddenly came on the phone.
Nelson-Ivy quickly said to contact health officer and hung up. In her email to Persaud, Nelson-Ivy claimed the facility went through inspection and monitoring through the Ryan White Program.
She received push back from Persaud. The inspector from the Ryan White Program is not credentialed to perform environmental health inspections. “Sending someone who is not licensed to do environmental health inspection is illegal. I am appalled that this action has your blessings,” wrote the health officer.
Nelson-Ivy also repeatedly tried to include King in internal communications. “Your inclusion of an outside agency into our internal communications is wrong and disrespectful to myself and my staff. We no longer have the confidence in providing confidential, sensitive and factual information to you,” wrote Persaud. “With all due respect, your action is compromising our well-being and ability to perform our jobs in an impartial and fair manner.”
Nelson-Ivy has been criticized for defending the program.
“They are covering each other,” said city resident Elizabeth Elias on Monday morning. She said the city should have forced the organization to shut down when it first failed inspection last year.
“There are local people that are colluding for this to go on,” said Bilal Hakeem of the Elombe Brath Power Coalition.
Both Hakeem and Elias were protesting the Well of Hope on Monday morning.
“I’m not too sure how to take that issue. There seems to be an ongoing dispute as to who is responsible for the department,” said councilman William McKoy, chairman of the health committee, when told about Nelson-Ivy’s text and email exchanges.
There has been ongoing dispute between Nelson-Ivy and Persaud going back years. Nelson-Ivy was accused of mistreating the health director in a lawsuit the city settled in 2014.
More recently, there has been an issue about the structure of the health department. Councilman Michael Jackson has said the council is failing to carry out its health responsibilities. The city council in Paterson is also the board of health. However, the council has not held a meeting as the board of health in decades. The state in a recent evaluation of the health department nudged the city to convene board of health meetings at least every quarter.
Jackson, who expressed concern at the health director attempting to intervene in the inspection, said some of the issues in this case is the result of the “dysfunction” in the health department.
“You have a health officer who is consistently over ridden by a health director who is not licensed [public health license]. You run the risk of putting the public at risk,” said Jackson on Friday. The health officer is supposed to answers to the board of health; however, in Paterson, the health officer answers to the health director.
One attorney has compared the situation to a civilian police director telling officers what laws they are to enforce and how to enforce them. Those functions fall on the police chief and not the director.
Jackson said the council has to resolve the structure problem if it is to tackle health challenges facing the city.
Tips to publicly defend syringe access programs
King, the head of the Well of Hope, did not respond to a call for comment for this report. His organization has been under severe criticism for unloading five million needles in Paterson since 2008. Many of those needles are found in public places.
Some have called for the organization to close. King on Saturday ended the needle distribution at the Well of Hope, but continued to provide other services. He began to face serious criticism in August. In a drug policy meeting at the Passaic County Administration Building two residents took aim at his needle program.
Since then, King has struggled to defend giving out needles to out-of-town drug addicts in the city. In one email released by the city, King is provided advice on how to publicly defend his needle program.
Roseanne Scotti of Drug Policy Alliance provides tips to King and others on ways to address concerns about improperly discarded syringes. She calls for message discipline, letters to the editor, and to shift focus away from discarded needles to the opioid crisis.
“I think it is important to emphasize that any current problems with discarded syringes are being caused by the current opioid crisis and not by the SAPs [syringe access programs]. SAPs are part of the solution,” wrote Scotti. “We should avoid being defensive and emphasize our willingness to work with communities members in various ways including syringe sweeps. “
King appears to have not followed Scotti’s advice. He has always been defensive about the needle program.