The Board of Alders unanimously passed an amendment to the city’s controversial lead ordinance, which — with the addition of the word “shall” — now requires city action when children test with elevated levels of lead in their blood, rather than simply giving the health department license to inspect.
Mayor Toni Harp announced the original ordinance this summer in the wake of a still-ongoing class-action lawsuit filed against the city by attorneys at New Haven Legal Assistance. The lawsuit alleged that the city’s health department had relaxed its lead standards. Officials later admitted to the allegations in court and said that they had done so in order to save money. The department had moved to a blood test standard of 20 micrograms of lead per deciliter (ug/dl) or higher to trigger lead inspection and abatement — instead of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention standard of 5 ug/dl it had used in the past — in violation of existing municipal law, which relied on the CDC standard. After officials admitted to illegally loosening inspection requirements, Harp said that the city reverted to the 5 ug/dl standard.
After the August introduction, the mayor touted the ordinance as evidence that the city was taking steps towards more rigorous lead enforcement because it explicitly stated the city’s lead standard at 5 ug/dl or higher. But opponents — including legal aid attorneys — argued before yesterday’s final amendment that the city’s lead law already established the standard at 5 ug/dl, and that Harp’s ordinance would weaken the existing law by authorizing but not requiring inspections at that level. But after a lengthy legislative battle, the “shall” amendment seems to have satisfied all parties with the city’s newly heightened accountability.
“The inspections under the [unamended] ordinance that came out of the committee [in November] … would still have been under [the health department’s] discretion,” Shelley White, one of the legal aid attorneys on the class-action lawsuit, told the News in an interview. “So this [“shall”] language is a compromise [that requires the city] to take the necessary action in children’s homes.”
White underscored that the scope of this necessary action is still up for debate, but that as long as it is “scientifically sufficient,” legal aid attorneys are satisfied.
The “shall” amendment was not the only point of contention throughout the legislative process. Members of the Board of Alders’ legislation committee first tabled the proposed amendments — which included the “shall” controversy and concerns over the city’s Lead Paint Advisory Committee — after a heated public hearing in September. Two weeks ago, the same committee voted in a 4–1 vote to advance the ordinance to the full board after making a number of amendments to the proposition, including reinstating the board’s oversight of the city’s advisory committee. Still, legal aid attorneys argued up until yesterday’s meeting that the proposed ordinance would still weaken the city’s lead law.
But on Monday, White praised the new amendment to the proposed ordinance, as did Ward 26 Alder Darryl Brackeen, who was the sole “no” vote at November’s meeting.
“I can stand here and say that community voices have been heard,” Brackeen said, emphasizing the importance of the “shall” addition. “We shall investigate, and we shall ensure that there is justice for the children of this city.”
One day before alders, lawyers and community members reached the final consensus, Harp penned an op-ed accusing legal aid attorneys of having “mischaracterized, maligned and attacked” what she considers “thoughtful, well-vetted legislation.”
In her op-ed, published in the New Haven Register, the outgoing mayor took issue with a flyer encouraging residents to call their alders regarding the health department’s responsibility to inspect homes of children under 6 years old with blood lead levels of at least 5 ug/dl. This flyer, Harp wrote, mischaracterized the ordinance, which she has consistently claimed was more progressive than existing law, despite the fact that the existing law relies on the CDC requirements that preceded the lawsuit.
“The FACT [sic] is the City of New Haven and its Health Department are committed to the protection of children,” Harp’s op-ed reads. “This is the truth, despite the self-interested hyperbole of lawyers.”
Mayoral spokesperson Laurence Grotheer declined to comment on specifics regarding Monday’s vote or the ordinance.
Contact Mackenzie Hawkins at firstname.lastname@example.org and Talia Soglin at email@example.com