By Jack Mayne

The Burien City Council voted 5 to 2 Monday night (Oct. 16) to ban King County health officials from locating a safe injection site in the city, despite pleas of some that such a site would help eliminate tainted and discarded drug needles to help individuals addicted to heroin and other hard and illegal drugs keep from getting life-threatening diseases.

The vote left Councilmembers Lauren Berkowitz and Austin Bell on the losing side in favor of letting the county possibly locating such a site here. Currently, there are no legal drug injections sites anywhere in the United States, and the closest one is in Vancouver, British Columbia.

At the beginning of the meeting, Councilmember Lauren Berkowitz moved to take the decision to allow or not allow safe drug injection sites in Burien off the agenda.

“It’s premature to discuss this issue,” Berkowitz said, because there are no specifics on the proposed safe injection sites or whether one would even be located in Burien. “It is pure election year politics and we can be wasting our time as a council.”

The proposal to postpone failed on a 4 to 3 vote, with Deputy Mayor Nancy Tosta and Councilmember Austin Bell voting with Berkowitz.

Burien is the last of the regional cities to consider King County’s rather vague proposal to allow places where individual could get clean needles and inject their own illegal drugs. SeaTac and Des Moines rejected such facilities during earlier discussions with their city councils.

Residents mostly say No
Dr. Dan Gottlieb (pictured, left) said that he and his wife are medical professionals and said the American Medical and the Massachusetts Medical associations did not recommend safe injection sites as a treatment for drug addiction. The safe injection sites could be a research project that had to be operated with a host of supporting services, not run alone. Gottlieb said there was an “enormous liability problem because the staff working there” would be dealing with something that was illegal and not something that could be done in a small community like Burien.

Shorewood resident Frank Coluccio told the Council it should tell King County the safe injection site is not wanted in Burien and cited Vancouver, B.C., where such a site does exist on the east side of downtown, with increasing crime and other problems. A proposed safe injection site would not provide drugs, that would be up to the individual.

Coluccio said that since the safe site in Vancouver, over 700 people have died of heroin use, “88 percent more than in 2016.” He also debunked the belief that such sites reduce crime, but notes a report than says the Canadian city experiences a heavier volume of crime “generally connected with the higher concentration of transient persons and habitual drug users seeking to fund their addiction” at the Eastside Vancouver safe injection site.

He said King County said it would not put such a facility in any community that does not want it, and “the only way to guarantee that it does not get put in Burien is to provide a resolution stating no, we do not want this.” He added it should include White Center and other unincorporated areas nearby, adding that if Burien says ‘no’ “they will put it in White Center and White Center does not need this.”

Resident Ed Dacy said a King County safe injection site “is appropriate, but it should be situated in an industrial zone, away from residential, away from schools and away from the kids.”

Jimmy Matta, who is running against incumbent Councilmember Debi Wagner in the Nov. 7 election, said Burien does not have enough money to deal “with the side effects of a safe injections site.” He suggested that city officials need to have more conversations with its citizens over such a major issue and “come together” as a community.

Not the right place
Councilmember Wagner moved to ban safe drug injections sites in the city and to inform King County it does not want such a facility.

“It seems crazy” there could be police arresting people for illegal drug use in one part of the city while in another part where officials were escorting people in and out of a safe injection site, said Wagner. “It has been said that this is not the right place for it. I don’t think any place is the right place for it.”

She said the best way to help people overcome drug dependency is to have treatment facilities to help them “get back on a path to a better life.” Safe injection sites means “we are just looking the other way while they are slowly killing themselves.”

Resources should go to helping people overcome their addiction, said Wagner.

Councilmember Bell said the issue of safe injection should go to the new Human Services commission to study to see what might be best for Burien and its citizens.

“Let’s get some feedback on this so we can have a rational discussion,” Bell said. “I think it is naive to say that if we ban this, the problem will somehow go away.”

Berkowitz critical
Councilmember Berkowitz said she has been critical for her entire four years on the Council for making decisions with “absolutely no information” and this vote was another indication of an egregious violation. Seeming to overlook Highline Medical Center, Berkowitz said the city has no public health facility and there is no reason to believe that such a safe injection site would ever be placed in Burien.

She said she was opposed to “banning something without knowing anything, based on fear and councilmembers saying things like ‘I think.’ We are not here to make decisions on things like, ‘I think.’ We are here to make decisions on fact, statistics and information,” Berkowitz said. “If we don’t have any, we should defer action.”

Councilmember Bob Edgar said the small city of Burien cannot afford to be a testing ground “for a questionable pilot project.” Few business would want a location near a heroin injection site and the city does not have the resources of a large city to handle potential problems.

Councilmember Stephen Armstrong asked how much more information was need to understand that injecting a dangerous drug into your body is not something positive.

Deputy Mayor Tosta said she hears people saying “no, no, no” and “I want some solutions.” She said the city does not know what the offer from King County is so it would be better to give this to experts on the new Human Services Commission to study before deciding. She said she is frustrated that the decision is being “forced down our throats and being played as a political maneuver.”

Mayor Lucy Krakowiak said she doesn’t think “Burien needs to be a guinea pig for a pilot program.”

Judge rejects ballot measure
King County Superior Court Judge Veronica Alicea-Galvan ruled Monday that a ban on safe injection sites would infringe on the powers of the King County Board of Health and therefor shouldn’t be on a Special ballot in February. The matter must be upheld in appeal to take effect.

The ruling is a victory for advocated safe injection sites.

Another Council candidate, Patty Janssen, wanted the Council “to ban safe injection sites.”

Betsy Howe Wheelock said Burien “would never be able to handle such a thing” and the city should join others in the area banning such facilities.

But Cydney Moore supported having such a site in Burien, stating that many medical authorities said such sites are beneficial.

Award, new hires
The Government Finance Officer’s Association gave an award for financial transparency and accountability to Burien Finance Director Kim Krause. The award was presented to Krause by Redmond Finance Director Mike Bailey.

City Manager Brian Wilson introduced new city employees to the Council. They are economic development intern Doug Minkler; AmeriCorps stormwater outreach coordinator Christine Lovelace; and, accounting intern Christina McCall.

Parks and Recreation Director Steve Roemer said the Eagle Landing Park stairs should be “terminated at the top” because the bottom portion of the stairs cannot be used due to water erosion of the sandy hillside. “Money is better spent somewhere else,” Roemer said.

Senior Reporter Jack Mayne passed away in December, 2021. In his honor we have created the Jack Mayne Journalism Scholarship.