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Email records refute some Pueblo City Council claims of community support for needle exchange ban

Council members like Regina Maestri publicly said support for the ban existed outside the council chambers, but her email records reveal little evidence of those claims
Posted at 1:16 PM, Jul 02, 2024

PUEBLO, Colo. — Ahead of the May 13 Pueblo City Council vote to ban needle exchange programs, city councilors like Regina Maestri made claims that there was large community support for the ban.

But the sheer number of people at the meeting speaking in opposition to the ban and a public records request for Councilwoman Maestri’s emails shed doubt on those claims.

“They don’t want to come in and make public statements, but they will call and they will reach out,” said Maestri on May 13,referring to those who asked her to support the ordinance.

Maestri and others have said that the needle exchange programs led to more used needles discarded around the city while also encouraging drug addiction, amongst other issues.

“We have a community here that’s tired of it and so they have asked to bring something like this forward and to consider it,” Maestri continued at the May 13 council meeting.

Those statements prompted Emily Gradisar to pen an op-ed for the Pueblo Chieftain newspaper after the council’s ban was voted through. Gradisar is the managing partner of the Ethos creative community space in Pueblo. She often speaks out on community issues.

“Councilwoman Regina Maestri stated that she had ‘many’ constituents contact her to support the ban, but that they didn’t show up to city council because they were worried about being ridiculed,” Gradisar wrote in the May 17 op-ed.

“She did not provide any numbers or proof to back up her claim, unlike Councilwoman Sarah Martinez, who brought printouts of every email she received on the subject, and shared the number of voicemails she received both for and against the ban.”

According to a count by the Pueblo Chieftain, 44 people spoke in favor of the needle exchange programs during the May 13 council meeting, with just six people supporting a ban.

In an interview after Gradisar’s op-ed was published, she said if Maestri can’t provide the evidence for her claims, she should apologize.

“She didn't even need to do that. Several of the other council members simply said ‘No, I'm supporting the needle ban’ and left it at that,” Gradisar said in the interview. “You didn't have to make up nonsense information.”

A public records request for Maestri’s emails from Jan. 1, 2024 through May 13 revealed an even starker disparity between the two groups.

The records request yielded hundreds of pages from community members emailing Maestri and other city council members about the ordinance vote.

Maestri only received three emails ahead of the May 13 meeting that supported a ban. 48 emails were against it.

“I spend an inordinate amount of time picking up needles around our building (next to Family Dollar) and the dangerous amount of trash from individuals who are addicts - a duty that I never signed up for,” said Zane Grant, executive director of CASA (Court Appointed Special Advocates for Children) of Pueblo, in one of the three emails to Maestri supporting the ban.

The Colorado Open Records Act (CORA) request asked for all of Councilwoman Maestri’s email records in that date range with the terms “syringe(s)” and “needle(s).”

The aim was to confirm or negate Maestri’s claims from the dais that community members had contacted her about a ban outside of the council chambers.

Maestri did not return a request for comment on if she had evidence or records to support her claims whether they were in the form of voicemails or otherwise.

KOAA sent four emails to her Pueblo City Council address from June 18 to June 26. The emails informed her of the story and first asked for an interview followed by a request for comment or a statement so that she wouldn’t be surprised by the report.

She was then reached by phone on June 20. She said she’d been at a conference and had not seen the KOAA emails. She was asked to take a look and respond when she was able. This report was delayed to give her time to respond.

A final call was made on July 1 and a voicemail was left. Maestri never responded by the time this report was broadcast.

Of the 48 emails sent to Maestri’s account urging the council not to vote for a ban, 14 were from medical professionals or healthcare workers involved with addiction treatments. Other medical professionals also spoke to the data during the city council meeting that shows needle exchange programs help prevent the spread of infectious diseases like HIV and serve as an entry point for many to seek treatment.

Dr. Libby Stuyt is an addiction psychiatrist who previously worked in Pueblo for many years. She was one of the medical professionals who emailed Councilwoman Maestri.

“I couldn't believe what they were doing. I mean, it goes against any sense of science or medical care,” said Stuyt in an interview with KOAA.

Stuyt said there were needles littered through Pueblo in the years prior to the needle exchange programs opening up and said the argument about an increase in discarded needles was inaccurate.

“That's very short-term memory because we were out there picking them up in parks. And I think that significantly reduced when they started the needle exchange program,” said Stuyt.

Support for the ban certainly exists, but the number of people who reached out to city council hasn’t been clear cut or transparent.

Although the ban was enacted, an ACLU of Colorado lawsuit caused a temporary injunction until a July 10 court hearing. The ban could be reversed, upheld, or moved onto trial at that time.

Tim Macdonald, legal director with ACLU of Colorado, said the City of Pueblo has not yet produced documents related to their lawsuit.

Macdonald argued that Pueblo’s ordinance goes against state law since Colorado authorized needle exchange programs in 2010 and then expanded the law in 2020 to allow them without local government approval.

“We don't yet have documents from the City of Pueblo. So we'll see if they can produce documents that there was a groundswell asking them to do this,” said Macdonald. “But our position is: it doesn't matter. Because the public health experts and the state of Colorado have said, ‘These programs are safe. They're effective.’ And our clients are authorized to engage in these programs in Pueblo and across the state.”

Macdonald said he fears if the courts rule the ban can go into effect, then other jurisdictions like Colorado Springs may soon follow suit.

Jude Solano is the co-founder and CEO of Southern Colorado Harm Reduction, one of Pueblo’s two needle exchange programs.

“We have had testimony by public health officials, medical providers, medical professionals, and we bring data and facts. They've not had to do that,” said Solano. “And talking in hearsay doesn't cut it. The people deserve the truth and they deserve the evidence.”

In the two weeks from the city council vote to the temporary injunction, when the needle exchange program ban was in effect, Solano said there were a reported three deaths from overdose. She also said there was self-reporting of needle sharing in that timeframe.

“We hear from public officials stating that there are hundreds of thousands and piles and piles of syringes on every corner. Take a picture. Let's see it,” Solano added.

Email Senior Reporter Brett Forrest at Follow @brettforrestTVon X and Brett Forrest News on Facebook.

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