point-counterpoint

Protestors interrupt press conference 

By TED WADDELL
Posted 10/27/20

MONTICELLO, NY — On the plus side, the protesters left their torches and pitchforks at home, electing instead to show up with homemade signs and a bullhorn to effectively break up a press …

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point-counterpoint

Protestors interrupt press conference 

Posted

MONTICELLO, NY — On the plus side, the protesters left their torches and pitchforks at home, electing instead to show up with homemade signs and a bullhorn to effectively break up a press conference in front of the county courthouse on Wednesday, October 21.

The press conference was organized as a platform for NYS Republican Leader Robert G. Ortt, the Republican candidate for Senate District 42 Mike Martucci, Sullivan County Sheriff Michael A. Schiff, a couple of county coroners and a local resident who lost a nephew to drug addiction to speak out on what was billed as “the negative impact that Democrat bail reform has had on the heroin and opioid crisis; Democrat bail reform’s consequences on the heroin and opioid crisis.”

Before the conference started, a small group of protesters began to gather on the courthouse lawn, carrying signs proclaiming “Detention # Treatment,” “Cash Bail Is A Racist + Cla$$ist System,“ “None of us are free if one of us is chained,” and “Black Lives Matter.” A few people stood by with pro-Jen Metzger yard signs. 

As the press conference got underway, some of the protestors took up positions behind the speakers, holding their signs aloft in front of the media.

This display sparked a war of signs as supporters of the Republican speakers held up hastily mustered placards reading “Mike Martucci - State Senate,” as a visual counterpoint to the opposition.

Ortt was first up at the podium, but his address was cut short as Sandra Cuellar-Oxford, a local worker’s rights activist and chair of the Mid-Hudson Region’s Working Families Party, used an amplified bullhorn to confront Ortt, repeatedly interrupting the senator with references to his record of being charged with alleged past campaign finance irregularities (Ortt was never convicted) and other personal attacks on the speakers.

Afterward, Cuellar-Oxford said,” My message was that Mike is running a campaign of misinformation, very similar to what is happening on the national level with the Trump administration... and has been running a campaign on fears, lies and misinformation. The issue of bail reform and opioids is totally inappropriate for him to politicize.”

“For Sen. Ortt to come to Sullivan County is a total affront,” she added, alleging, “I went to Sen. Ortts’s office when he was the chairman of the mental health committee; he refused to see people from Sullivan County and refused to address the opioid issues. He wouldn’t give us the time of day.”

Schiff was next up and briefly spoke about almost losing a daughter to heroin addiction, but after trying in vain to introduce a tone of civility to the rapidly unraveling discourse, the press conference was halted.

As a result of the termination, Martucci, the coroners and the victim who lost her relative to the scourge of drugs never had a chance to present their side of the issues or tell their stories.

“I came here today to speak about my nephew who passed away from a drug overdose,” said Antonia Divita of Roscoe, NY of losing her 31-year old relative.

“It hurts. I don’t want another family to go through what we went through. I feel Sullivan County is very bad with drug addiction, and we need to do something, get them to open up places where people can get treated,” she said.

While Divita was never able to take her turn at the podium due to the disruptions created by the protestors, after most of them departed, she stood next to Ortt and Martucci under a tree and shared a few suggestions on how to deal with the drug abuse epidemic: expanding the DARE program to include students in grades 10 and 11 and establishing methadone clinics.

“Let’s educate our children in school,” said the Roscoe Central School graduate of the Class of 1984. “I don’t want to go through this. The loss is immense.”

“I don’t care if you’re Republican or Democrat, these are humans, and this is about saving a kid who has an addiction.”

Senator Ortt and candidate Martucci address bail reform & the drug crisis

In the press release, Ortt was quoted on the subject of drug courts, pathways of treatment and what was presented in the release as “desk appearances tickets lead straight back to drug abuse.”

“Senate Republicans took action to fund and connect people with services and fund them to combat addiction. But in the two years that Democrats held the majority, that work is being unraveled. Bail reform cruelly sends a person addicted to a lethal substance back on the streets to get their next high, allowed critical funding for treatment to be cut.”

Martucci added, “Democrats like Jen Metzger never consider the tragic consequences of bail reform. Heroin and opioid addiction has impacted so many individuals, and now her new law sets back a crucial point of connection to treatment and recovery. Instead, the terrible predictions of drug counselors, victims and law enforcement of increased overdose and death are taking a toll on Sullivan County.”

A conversation with the Sullivan County Sheriff

In the wake of the blocked press conference, Schiff sat down with a representative of the River Reporter on a metal bench in front of the courthouse to share a few thoughts on the complex issues of bail reform and drug addiction.

“Someone who is victimized should be our number one concern, and we should look at fair treatment for people who are arrested,” he said. He noted that, when former county district attorney Jim Farrell was in office, the DA’s policy was in essence “no one should be sitting in jail, at the end of a trial, I wouldn’t be putting in jail.

“I think the judges and courts should take a look at this, why should somebody be sitting in jail if they don’t have 50 bucks or 100 bucks,” he said.

“I haven’t heard anybody discuss victim and victim’s rights in a long time... we should be concerned if someone gets out [of jail] and creates a new victim. If that happens, we should be ashamed of ourselves.”

As quoted in the press release, Schiff said, “An encounter with law enforcement used to be a key moment on the road to recovery before Democrats passed a law that left us handcuffed. We warned that bail reform would have real-life consequences. Now we are seeing overdoses and death as a result of this law.”

During the bench-side conversation, Schiff said he knows firsthand about drug addiction, as his daughter, a recovering addict who just had a child with her partner, also a recovering heroin addict. 

“She’s clean right now, it was an uphill battle... she was off the drugs, back on the drugs. It rips you up, so I’m aware of what it means to have a heroin addict in the family. Every day I keep my fingers crossed.”

Other voices

In the wake of the curtailed contentious press conference, the River Reporter reached out to both sides of the polarizing issues of New York State bail reform as related to the ongoing heroin and opioid rubicon.

“It’s inappropriate for an angry mob of Jen Metzger supporters to silence a victim’s family,” said Candice Giove, State Republican Campaign Committee spokeswoman. 

“We already understand that Jen Metzger doesn’t care about the consequences bail reform has had on those suffering from substance abuse, nor does she care about the reduction in funding to heroin and opioid treatment programs that’s happened on her watch.”

According to Giove, Metzger “abdicated her legislative responsibility in the budget to the Executive,” currently withholding a uniform 20-percent from addiction treatment centers. Giove stated that, while in the majority, NYS Senate Republicans increased funding to combat the opioid crisis from $168 million to a record $247 million in the fiscal year 2019. Between 2014 and 2018, the Republican majority commissioned a senate task force on heroin and opioid addiction; the task force consulted with various stakeholders and visited various geographic locales, making 11 recommendations, and later allocated $5 million to their implementation. In the fiscal year 2021 budget, Gov. Cuomo and the Democratic majority declined to restore funding for medication-assisted treatment in local jails.

“Combined with the majority’ bail and discovery reform, a dangerous situation has been created in which individuals who would normally access medication-assisted treatment in jail will no longer have access to those services... individuals are being released without critical reentry treatment,” she added. 

Lacey Seidman, Metzger’s communications director, responded: “The new Democratic state majority continued the bipartisan Senate Heroin/Opioid Task Force and held numerous hearings across the state passed important legislation after incorporating feedback from the public hearings.”

The NYS Senate passed several bills to address the heroin/opioid epidemic: Informational Card for Opioid Antagonists Must Include Information on Good Samaritan Protections (S.6361), Expand Access to Medications that Treat Substance Abuse Disorders (S.5935), Bill of Rights for Individuals in Chemical Treatment Programs (S.4599), Recovery Living Task Force (S.4496) in addition to other legislation.

“Metzger successfully worked to restore $550 million in damaging health care cuts proposed for hospitals and nursing homes, along with mitigating a direct $123 million cut to nursing homes,” said Seidman.

In an email, Metzger said, “We cannot arrest our way out of the opioid epidemic. At-risk youth, veterans and seniors suffering from chronic pain, and people who feel trapped by the lack of opportunity all need different solutions.”

Noting that the state legislature has passed 22 bills to address the epidemic, Metzger added, “We need to double down on our collective efforts in prevention and treatment, working with local law enforcement, county health departments, community-based organizations, schools, healthcare providers... working together is the only way to get this done.”

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