At the cusp of a settlement over safe injection sites, the U.S. Attorney’s Office appears to be shutting local officials out
A group of elected officials representing Northeast Philly convened to protest a private meeting between the feds and residents.
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Editor's note: An earlier version of this story said the meeting was between the Department of Justice, Safehouse, the City Solicitor, and community leaders. The meeting was between the DOJ and community groups. This has been corrected.
Safehouse, a nonprofit advocating for safe injection sites in Philly, has met with the U.S. Attorney’s Office over the last few months, in continuing talks over an incoming settlement that could finish years of legal wrangling with the federal government.
But meetings did not initially include community stakeholders until neighborhood leaders pressured federal officials into allowing residents and local officials to witness discussions, but elected leaders were shut out of those conversations on Wednesday, March 22.
The DOJ, on previous occasions, negotiated with Safehouse and the City Solicitor directly, prompting backlash from community groups who oppose installing Safe Injection Sites in their neighborhoods.
"The City Solicitor has participated in ongoing mediation discussions with the DOJ on behalf of the Administration. Separate from the mediation discussions, she has previously been a part of community meetings with City officials and Kensington residents regarding quality of life issues, during which Safehouse has been discussed," a spokesperson for the City Solicitor said in a statement.
Safehouse was not aware the meeting had taken place, a spokesperson told AL DÍA.
Shannon Farrell-Pakstis, President of the Harrowgate Civic Association and persistent opponent of the proposed injection sites, said that federal officials did not say much “other than it sounds like they’re negotiating to settle…they want to try and negotiate and mediate with them.”
“From what we understand, there was a commitment that through the mediation process, the community would be kept informed,” Councilmember Quetcy Lozada said.
“What that actually means, we’re not really sure,” Lozada added.
About two months ago, community leaders urged the DOJ to open discussions between residents in some of the neighborhoods with open-air drug markets as settlement discussions between the U.S. Attorney and Safehouse continue.
Harrowgate, Farrell-Pakstis continued, sent a letter with a list of constituents and local elected officials in Philly who would attend the meeting, but when the group reached the U.S. Attorney’s Office, elected officials weren’t allowed in the room due to clearance issues.
The DOJ, Farrel-Pakstis said, also appeared to be concerned over the implications and potential conflicts of interest of meeting with elected officials without pre-authorized clearance.
“We sent them a list of our officials, and they wouldn’t let them in,” Sonja Bingham, who is president of Friends of Harrowgate Park, a community group, told AL DÍA News.
Bingham and Farrel-Pakstis requested an additional meeting from the DOJ to be held with elected officials representing Kensington, but U.S. Attorney Jacqueline Romero — a Joe Biden appointee who received no opposition on the Senate vote — said she couldn’t guarantee it before the settlement is closed.
“We won the lawsuit,” Bingham said, frustrated, referring to a suit spanning years and leveled originally by Romero’s predecessor William McSwain, a Donald Trump appointee who personally argued against safe injection sites in court, and won.
Safehouse, however, returned to court on appeal and is now vying for a settlement under a new presidential administration and a DOJ that is open to safe drug consumption with “appropriate guardrails.”
Farrell-Pakstis said that while the DOJ declined to share a timeline with residents at the meeting, Romero allegedly said the department is undergoing a court-ordered procedure, “so there is a timeline. They’re just not telling us.”
“They’re going to be allowed to open up safe injection sites,” said Farrell-Pakstis, “and we’re supposed to trust that they’re going to put in the proper safeguards without having to ever really talk to us or walking the neighborhoods with us.”
The U.S. Attorney, according to Bingham and Farrell-Pakstis, heard the concerns raised by the community in the meeting and responded, “I hear ya.”
AL DÍA has reached out to the U.S. Attorney’s Office for comment and is awaiting a response.
Elected officials are unanimously opposed
Across the board, elected officials who represent swaths of the neighborhoods in North Philly that are hit hardest by the opioid epidemic oppose unilateral decision-making on safe injection sites.
Many ran campaigns on promises to curb the opioid epidemic, and should Safehouse succeed, it throws a wrench in campaign promises.
State Representative José Giral, who succeeded Ángel Cruz in 2022, said that shutting officials out “disenfranchised” the voices of voters who rely on their officials to oppose Safehouse’s plans for North Philly.
“They disenfranchised thousands of people we represent. I think the Department of Justice owes us an apology,” Giral, who ran on tackling the drug crisis in Kensington, said.
Councilmember Jim Harrity, who was recently sworn to council to replace one of his resigned colleagues, called the recent developments “outrageous.”
“The community is not for it. I’m in the neighborhood, I live in Kensington, and I’m there every day. My neighbors are not for this,” he said.
Senator Christine Tartaglione, an incumbent who represents much of the region that brought attention to safe injection sites, said that “a safe injection site is not going to save these individuals.”
“I represent 265,000 people. I represent ground zero at Kensington and Allegheny. We need programs and treatments that work,” Sen. Tartaglione affirmed and said she secured funding for new programs to curb addiction.
“We can’t fix this with bandaids and bullets,” the State Senator, who has not met with Romero, told AL DÍA.
Lozada said she is prepared to flex her muscles in city council to explore options to prevent sites from opening in her district, including invoking councilmanic prerogative, which grants her the ability to green-light projects.
“I believe it is my responsibility to stand with the people who elected me to be their voice.”