Members of the Board of Alders’ legislation committee voted to advance controversial amendments to the city’s lead ordinance on Tuesday night.
The same committee tabled the amendments in September after a marathon public hearing in which health professionals and members of the community expressed concern that the new ordinance would give the city more leeway in how it deals with lead inspections and abatements. After the 4–1 vote on Tuesday, the amendments — which were proposed by the Harp administration — will now move to a vote before the full Board of Alders, likely in December.
But Ward 26 alder Darryl Brackeen — the only member of the committee who voted against moving the ordinance forward — said the proposed ordinance was a step in the wrong direction for New Haven.
“We are taking a step back from the platform that this city has set a precedent for,” he said in Tuesday’s meeting.
Since the public hearing in September, the city’s health department has made minor changes to the proposed amendments. For example, the department added a provision which states that the city’s Board of Health Commissioners must sign off on the health department’s policies. Deputy corporation counsel Catherine LaMarr and interim director of health Roslyn Hamilton presented the changes to the committee and noted that the amendments now include a set of guidelines for the director of health to follow when implementing the ordinance, and civil penalties for landlords violating the ordinance.
But at the core of the heated debate on Tuesday evening was one word, one which was also included in September’s version of the ordinance: “authorize.”
In a section detailing lead inspection procedures, the proposed ordinance says that the director of health is “authorized” to conduct inspections when a child tests with an elevated level of lead in their blood — but is not required to do so. On Tuesday, alders debated whether the city — which is currently in the midst of a class-action lawsuit regarding its loosening of its own lead policies — should be allowed this flexibility.
Amy Marx, an attorney at New Haven Legal Assistance, and one of the attorneys on the lawsuit, urged the alders not to advance the ordinance forward. At the September hearing, Marx argued that the new ordinance would “gut” the city’s existing law.
“They don’t have to do the inspection at all under this law,” Marx said on Tuesday evening. “And once you don’t do an inspection, you don’t find lead hazards, and then you don’t issue orders.”
Under the Elm City’s current lead ordinance, the department is required to move forward with a full inspection — including dust wipes, soil samples and X-Ray fluorescence machines — whenever a child under the age of six tests with an elevated blood lead level.
The Harp administration proposed the new amendments in the wake of the class-action lawsuit, after city officials admitted in court that in order to save money, they had stopped inspecting the homes of children who tested with five micrograms per deciliter of lead in their blood and above, moving to inspect only at 20 µg/dl and above. Harp has said that the city has returned to inspecting the homes of children who test at five, and has touted the new ordinance because it explicitly states the city’s lead standard as 5 µg/dl. But multiple judges have ruled that the city’s existing lead law already establishes a standard at 5 µg/dl by its reliance on a CDC standard.
The current ordinance establishes the city’s standard as 20 µg/dl or “any other abnormal body burden of lead as defined by the Center for Disease Control and Prevention.” The CDC uses a reference level of 5 µg/dl.
In New Haven, Marx said, lead poisoning is a “crisis of brown and black children, in poor neighborhoods, in lower income areas, in rental housing in which they are being poisoned by the lead paint chipping and flaking from their homes.”
“What we need to be concerned about is what needs to happen for these children,” she added.
But on Tuesday, LaMarr and Hamilton argued that the discretion embedded in the amendments was necessary in order to allow the health department to prioritize its resources for the most-affected children.
“‘Authorized’ does not mean we’re going to ignore, or not do the work or use some sort of way to not protect these children,” LaMarr said. She later said that she could not think of a situation in which the ordinance “would allow the health department to ignore children that had an actionable blood lead level.”
Before voting to move the ordinance forward to the full board, the committee added a number of amendments to the legislation, many of which dealt with the city’s Lead Paint Advisory Committee — an unofficial group of healthcare and housing professionals that Hamilton and LaMarr said they had consulted with on changes to the ordinance.
The alders reinstated language that would require the Board of Alders to approve appointments to the committee. They also voted to add language that would require “legal services” to be represented in the group, an amendment adapted from Brackeen’s original suggestion to explicitly name New Haven Legal Assistance. The alders changed the lead panel’s official name from a “committee” to a “board,” which would allow alders to make appointments in the case of vacancies on the panel.
Two members of the still-unofficial advisory committee submitted letters to the alders on Tuesday, expressing concerns about the ordinance. Amanda DeCew, a family nurse practitioner in Fair Haven, wrote that she had not been made aware that a revised ordinance would be presented to the alders on Tuesday.
“To my knowledge,” she wrote, “this revision was not circulated to the committee, and no meeting was scheduled to review the new revisions prior to submission.”
Karen Dubois-Walton, the executive director of Elm City Communities and another member of the unofficial lead panel, urged the committee to wait on the ordinance. She suggested that the alders “continue to hear from experts” and “review meaningful data” before passing new lead legislation. Ward 21 Alder Steve Winter ’11, who testified against the new ordinance on Tuesday, also urged the alders to wait until more specific lead poisoning data was made available by the city.
Towards the end of the meeting, Ward 25 Alder Adam Marchand said that he had been convinced that the city needed more discretion in how it handles lead cases, also alluding to the fact that the administration would soon turn over to mayor-elect Justin Elicker. Ward 22 Alder Jeannette Morrison, Ward 9 Alder Charles Decker GRD ’19 and Ward 27 Alder Richard Furlow also voted to move the ordinance forward, but Furlow said he hoped for some further changes to the law.
The proposed amendments will now move to the full legislative body, which will likely hear the ordinance at its first December meeting.
Talia Soglin | firstname.lastname@example.org