Keller, Kifer Discuss City of Hagerstown

On Monday night CAP members heard from Hagerstown City Councilwoman Emily Keller and Chief of Police Joey Kifer about current initiatives, ongoing challenges, and future directions for the city. The conversation addressed topics including economic development, addiction and recovery, homelessness and housing, and the relationship between the city and county governments.

Both Keller and Kifer spoke of positive changes in downtown Hagerstown. Kifer cited an extremely low crime rate, saying that “crime downtown is petty stuff,” and reporting significant decreases in virtually every category over the last five years. Keller added that Hagerstown is “better than most people think we are – we get a lot of bad press.” She mentioned substantial investment in the downtown arts district, including the new Maryland Theatre, an addition to the Barbara Ingram School for the Arts, and many new businesses. At the same time, Keller said, bringing more people downtown to live and play will require significant investment in housing and infrastructure, including basic things like grocery stores.

Speaking about challenges in the city, Keller mentioned opioid addiction and the success of Washington Goes Purple in raising awareness about the opioid crisis. Kifer noted the relationship between education and preventing addiction, lauding the recent increase in drug education in the public schools. He pointed to Antietam Academy as a major asset in supporting children who are dealing with issues that are disruptive to their educations. Providing a positive educational environment for those students, he said, helps break cycles that contribute to poverty, addiction, and crime. Kifer added that diversity in the police force has been a priority under his leadership, not only to ensure that law enforcement represents the community, but also to aid in understanding the needs of the community.

Asked about the problem of homelessness in the city, Kifer spoke movingly of trying to protect homeless citizens from risks inherent to their situation, such as harassment and violence. Keller talked about the enormous challenges such citizens face in simply finding food and shelter on a daily basis, leaving little time for job training and seeking employment. Many people without permanent addresses are unable to apply for jobs; others with temporary addresses may not be able to get things like utilities in their own names, making it difficult to establish credit and move to permanent housing. She discussed things the city is doing to try to help, such as the new Bridge to Change program and exploring various forms of affordable housing.

Discussing the relationship between the city and county governments, Keller said that they have a “mostly good relationship,” and that there have been some productive informal discussions between herself, Councilwoman Shelley McIntyre, and Commissioners Cort Meinelschmidt and Randy Wagner. She acknowledged that things like fire & rescue, water & sewer, and resulting tax differentials constitute “pain points” between the city and county, but said, “my job is to protect the citizens of the City of Hagerstown.”

The discussion concluded with a lively Q & A, culminating in the following question from an audience member: “how do we change the narrative of Hagerstown?” Keller and Kifer both expressed frustration over what they consider disproportionate media coverage of a very few negative stories, and agreed that we need to do more to shine light on the many positive things happening in the city.

With that in mind, CAP invites all readers to our Party Above Partisanship at The Flying Camel Café on Thursday, December 19 from 5-7pm!

Mullendore Speaks on Opioid Epidemic

Monday night’s CAP meeting was attended by about 20 CAP members and by four candidates for office in the 2018 election: Donna Brightman, candidate for County Commissioner; Kevin Caldwell, candidate for Congress in Maryland’s 6th Congressional District; John Krowka, candidate for Board of Education; and Bernard Semler, candidate for Washington County State’s Attorney. Caldwell and Semler both addressed the group briefly and informally, speaking of their support for CAP’s nonpartisan mission. Brightman and Krowka did not speak, as they are running for offices CAP will be endorsing. Board of County Commissioners and Board of Education candidates will have the opportunity to seek CAP’s endorsement in the coming weeks, at which point candidates who support our purpose and mission will be invited to address the group at a future meeting.

The meeting’s featured guest speaker was Sheriff Doug Mullendore. The sheriff spoke extensively about the opioid epidemic in Washington County and about what is being done – and what more could be done – to combat it. A 40-year veteran of local law enforcement, Mullendore believes strongly that the county can reduce crime by reducing addiction. Many crimes related to addiction, he said, are “not so much a criminal offense as a medical offense.”

According to Mullendore, it is “absolutely not correct” that people who are addicted have made a choice to become addicts. Because of this understanding, in 2010 he requested funding from the Board of County Commissioners to start a Day Reporting Center in Hagerstown. Day Reporting Centers have been well-documented as extremely successful interventions in the fight against addiction and related crime. The commissioners denied Mullendore’s request, that year and every year for the next five years. Then, in 2016, the Governor’s Opioid Task Force visited Hagerstown and recommended Day Reporting in its resulting report. In October 2016, the Washington County Sheriff’s Office Day Reporting Center was launched with a $540,000 seed grant from the Governor’s Office of Crime Control and Prevention.

The Center has been tremendously successful in reducing crime, recidivism, and fatal overdoses in the county. But, Mullendore said, it’s not enough. Washington County needs a detox center and an in-patient substance abuse treatment facility for non-offenders. As it stands now, people seeking treatment in Washington County must often wait days for a spot in a treatment program out of county, during which time they may change their minds, or overdose. A person seeking treatment “should never have to wait for a spot,” Mullendore said, adding that the lack of in-county treatment “costs us all, both economically and socially.”

Many thanks to Sheriff Mullendore for helping us understand more about how this national crisis is affecting us locally. The ongoing failure of the Board of County Commissioners to address the opioid epidemic in our county is an abdication of responsibility bordering on negligence. This is an issue CAP will address in our upcoming interviews with candidates for County Commissioner in the hope of electing candidates who will do something about it.