On August 23, 2018, the Orange County Needle Exchange Program (OCNEP) held a town hall meeting in Anaheim to discuss its plan for a mobile needle exchange unit with the community. The event became a parade for political pandering when OC Supervisor Todd Spitzer, Costa Mesa Mayor Sandy Genis, and Anaheim mayoral candidate Harry Sidhu showed up to speak out against the OCNEP. All three face tough elections this November, and the town hall was a perfect place to align themselves with voters.
OCNEP’s mobile exchange unit plans on dispensing needles, injection supplies, wound care, condoms, and lubricant to their patrons. They will also offer free STD, HIV and hepatitis C (HCV) testing to help prevent the spread of deadly infections.
August has been a long month for the OCNEP, who decided to take their needle exchange mobile after the City of Santa Ana shut them down in January over public health concerns. The proposed mobile needle exchange–which is allowed to dispense clean needles and supplies in Costa Mesa, Santa Ana, Anaheim, and Orange–was given the nod by the California Department of Public Health (CDPH) to begin work on August 6, 2018 for a period of two years. Since the state’s ruling, local politicians have rallied against the OCNEP. The County of Orange, along with the cities of Costa Mesa, Anaheim, and Orange filed an injunction lawsuit against the OCNEP in early August to prevent the volunteer organization from opening. OCNEP has obliged, and says they will not open until September, even though they are legally allowed to operate.
Members of the community fear that a mobile needle exchange will create an influx of drug addicts, homeless people, and other undesirables into their community. Their fear opened the door for politicians to rally applause and stoke the anger against the OCNEP.
Supervisor Spitzer’s opening line at the town hall was,“Good evening, my name is Todd Spitzer, and I’m suing you.” The raucous crowd erupted in applause at the statement. “When we cleared out the riverbed, we collected tens of thousands of needles,” Spitzer went on. “You wanted the authority to distribute and collect 1 million needles annually. But, in your own application you acknowledge that in previous years, of the 1 million needles you distributed, you only collected 750 thousand. There was a net loss of 250 thousand, and I think all of us know where those needles are: they were in Santa Ana Library, and on sidewalks.”
Spitzer stoked fears by acknowledging that OC communities feel they are under attack by sober living homes, homelessness, and by stating that the OCNEP has no guidelines to protect the communities they serve.
“I think you should immediately give up on the whole needle exchange,” Spitzer said. “These are not like ice cream trucks going through the community playing music, where kids rush out and buy a push pop. If you start bringing these to the community, it sends the wrong message.” Spitzer cemented his stance by ending his speech, “If you take on our community, I believe we’ll win.”
Mayor Genis of Costa Mesa also stated her concerns that the OCNEP lost roughly 10% of the needles they distributed, and felt that the OCNEP ignorantly scheduled their areas of distribution near Costa Mesa schools and parks. “How do we trust you to run a clean program that creates no damage to our neighborhood when you cared so little about our neighborhood? You never reached out before you put in your application. You clearly had no real knowledge of our city. You didn’t even bother to drive around. How can we trust you, when you didn’t even care about our community in our first place?”
Anaheim mayoral candidate Sidhu opened his remarks against the OCNEP by imploring everyone in the audience who was opposed to the needle exchange to stand up. Nearly everyone stood. “Have you ever thought about the 350 thousand people who live here? Have you ever thought about the million visitors who come to Anaheim? We are trying to protect them: to have a clean neighborhood, a safe neighborhood, and safe parks. Today, we are fighting the homeless issue. Next when you bring the needles here, we are not going to have enough police officers to fight.”
Whatever your feelings on the needle exchange, this does look like a positive example of elected officials following the will of the voters–many of whom have expressed opposition to the mobile needle exchange. But, if you look closer, these candidate’s opposition to the OCNEP seems politically charged.
Sandy Genis served on the Costa Mesa City Council from 1988 to 1996, and was mayor from 1992 till 1994. Genis was known to be vicious in her early political career. Still, nothing could prepare the public for what happened last November. In November, Genis–then a City Council member in Costa Mesa–seized power to become Costa Mesa Mayor after a late night coup ousted the sitting mayor Katrina Foley. At the time of the coup, Foley was a political ally of Genis. Costa Mesa citizens were appalled by Genis’s political opportunism and shouted, “traitor” and “turncoat” at Genis as the council voted 3-2 to remove Foley, according to the OC Register. Genis is now running for mayor against Foley in the upcoming November election, and you can be sure that Costa Mesa voters haven’t forgotten last November’s fiasco. Certainly Genis will use every chance she can to ally herself with Costa Mesa voters.
A similar situation is unfurling in Anaheim with mayoral candidate Harry Sidhu. Although Sidhu served on Anaheim City Council from 2004 to 2012, his political career has been highlighted by his political failures. In 2008, Sidhu lost a California State Senate primary election to Mimi Walters by a margin of 61%-39%.
When Sidhu ran for County Supervisor of OC’s low-income 4th District in 2010, he was labeled a carpetbagger because he lived in affluent Anaheim Hills. Sidhu was swept by Shawn Nelson that year with a margin of 63.1 percent to 36.9 percent. In 2016, Sidhu again lost in his bid for California State Assembly.
You can be sure that Sidhu–who saved the 4th of July for rich white people by donating an unspecified amount to the Anaheim Hills Community Council, according to Orange Juice Blog–-will do anything to secure his seat on the Republican ticket in Anaheim’s mayoral race.
Which brings us to Supervisor Spitzer, who is running for Orange County District Attorney against Tony Rackauckas in the November election. In the past few years, DA Rackauckas has become embroiled in controversy after reporting by the Weekly’s R. Scott Moxley uncovered that prosecutors and jail deputies used drugs and informants to illegally obtain evidence. With Rackauckas marred by scandal, Spitzer is trying to capitalize by appearing at every media frenzy to promote himself as a law and order candidate. For example, Spitzer made a speech to local news outlets early this month after Forrest Gordon Clark (aka. White Trash Jesus) was arrested in suspicion for starting the Holy Fire.
Spitzer is not a political newcomer. He was first elected to the OC Board of Supervisors in 1996. He’s been on nearly every local governing body since then, including the Transportation Corridor Agency (TCA), OC Transportation Authority (OCTA), the Select Committee on Prison Construction for the state of California, and the Mothers Against Drunk Driving advisory board for OC.
For all his successes, Spitzer isn’t without controversy. In 2015, Spitzer pulled a gun on Jeovany Castellano after Castellano approached Spitzer in a Foothill Ranch Wahoo’s Tacos and began speaking about the bible. Spitzer then performed a citizen’s arrest on the man, and has since claimed that he was the victim, not Castellano. The county, however, saw the situation differently. Orange County was forced to pay $121,ooo to The Voice of OC after Spitzer refused to release emails about his arrest of Castellano.
Even if the citizens of Costa Mesa, Anaheim, Santa Ana, and Orange oppose the new OCNEP mobile unit, the politicalization of the needle exchange can’t be ignored. Spitzer, Sidhu, and Genis would likely say anything to appease voters and secure a victory in the November election.
For more on the logistics of the needle exchange, the worries of the community and statistics on why Orange County needs a needle exchange, click here.