“Let's say it this way, absolutely none of the concerns that we had this time last year have been stopped,” Washington County Commissioner Bryan Davenport, who represents Gray, said on Friday.
“We have the exact same concerns because we've not been shown that anything is going to be any different than any other facility.”
One of the top concerns expressed frequently by Davenport and many in the community includes heightened traffic levels near schools, loitering at nearby businesses and the danger posed by methadone-impaired drivers.
Attempting to alleviate some concern, Mountain States Health Alliance and East Tennessee State University leaders, who will jointly operate the facility, pledged early in the process to establish a community advisory committee that could aid communication between the two parties.
Now, with the clinic’s opening mere weeks away, that community advisory committee has yet to be formed, although officials confirmed it’s in the making.
“The makeup of the advisory committee has been approved, but we are still waiting for confirmation from several of the individual participants,” a statement from Lindy White, the clinic’s administrator said.
According to White, the committee will consist of a school representative, two employers, two faith-based organizations, law enforcement, EMS, a veterans group, the property manager, three community members from Gray, and one regional representative.
The group is expected to have its first meeting this month, but Davenport and Gray resident Danny Sells, the lead voice behind the opposition group Citizens to Maintain Gray, aren’t aware of a single person who was invited to serve on the committee.
Sells said he was contacted by clinic officials in January about potential candidates to serve but was hesitant to share anyone’s information since he knew little about the committee’s rules and functions. He then reportedly emailed a list of questions to White and claims he received no response.
“I said, ‘I'm not going to ask anybody (to serve) until I know what this thing is about. I can't ask someone to serve on something that I don't know what it is,’ ” Sells said.
“That was right at the last of January, and I have yet to have any response to that email, and I have inquired numerous times within the community here, and we had a meeting about a month ago. Nobody is aware of anybody who has been requested to serve on the committee.”
Davenport said he expected the advisory committee to be established shortly after the clinic gained its final approval from the Johnson City Board of Zoning Appeals in November 2016.
“It's that kind of communication and the things that we were worried about (from the beginning),” Davenport said.
“The promises that were made that we'd have an advisory board and we'd have someone from the community on it. Now, here they're ready to set an opening, and that committee or whatever you want to call it — to my knowledge and to the people I think they would have reached out to — has not existed.
“If things like the committee haven’t come about, what else are they, Mountain States and ETSU, going to fall short on?”
The Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services’ minimum requirements for operating a nonresidential opioid treatment program, or methadone clinic, includes a section on community relations.
Under those rules, the clinic is “responsible for ensuring its service recipients do not cause unnecessary disruption to the community or act in a manner that would constitute disorderly conduct or harassment by loitering on the facility’s property.”
Also, when requested, each facility has to provide the state with a specific plan describing the efforts it will make to avoid disruption of the community by its patients and the actions it will take to assure responsiveness to community needs. The rule does not specifically require a community advisory board.
Dr. Wesley Giminn, chief pharmacist for the State Opioid Treatment Authority, said they will review Overmountain Recovery’s policies and procedures during its initial inspection, which will be required before the clinic opens. However, Giminn said that particular section of the rules is not required until the clinic is fully licensed.
“During our intial inspection, we require documentation on program governance, fee schedules, client rights, emergency preparedness, medication administration and overall service recipient safety. All other requirements will be required during their full inspection. We also do not routinely keep copies of these documents, we only require that they be readily available for our inspection,” Giminn said.
“The facility leadership has already communicated to me, multiple times, that community relations is one of their top priorities so I would not be surprised if these policies and procedures have already been drafted.”
According to a statement from White, work on the community relations plan is underway, but appears not yet to be completed.
“The leadership of Overmountain Recovery have been consulting with other clinics to learn what best practices in community relations policies they have found to be most beneficial in establishing trust and ensuring smooth operations,” the statement read.
In the meantime, clinic officials are bracing for a potential protest or presence during its ribbon cutting ceremony.
Sells did confirm Citizens to Maintain Gray members have discussed having a presence during the opening event.
“We have no intention of shutting down the road, blocking traffic or anything crazy like that,” Sells said assuredly.
Johnson City Police Chief Mark Sirois said a counterevent or protest, as long as it does not intrude on traffic or cause a disruption, is perfectly legal under the 1st Amendment.
Sirois said his department increased patrols in the area several months ago, and confirmed officers might be present during the clinic’s opening.
Overmountain Recovery will also have hired security on-site to ensure safety.
“The true statement is we will not go away with our opposition. Exactly how that manifests itself remains to be seen. The fact is if they think we're going away, they're dreaming,” Sells said.
Email Zach Vance at [email protected] Follow Zach Vance on Twitter at @ZachVanceJCP. Like him on Facebook at Facebook.com/ZachVanceJCP.