The controversial drug treatment clinic proposed for Amherst is emerging as an issue in the town supervisor's race, with the Republican candidate raising questions about why the head of the town's Democratic Committee attended a meeting to discuss the plans.
Marjory Jaeger said the presence of Jerome D. Schad, the chairman of the Amherst Democrats, at the April 2016 meeting injected politics into the process, and she criticized the attendees for keeping their knowledge of Catholic Health System's plans from neighbors of the proposed clinic site.
"This is an issue that residents have a right to know about from the beginning, not a year later and certainly not after backroom shady meetings," Jaeger wrote in a news release. "Our residents deserve better.”
Schad, who also is a commissioner of the Erie County Water Authority, defended his attendance and decried what he said was Jaeger's turning the drug-treatment clinic into a campaign issue. Catholic Health said the meetings were meant to share information with local stakeholders.
"There were no secrets, no backdoor, no 'don't share this information.' None of that," said JoAnn Cavanaugh, a Catholic Health spokeswoman.
The sparring among Jaeger, Schad and Catholic Health is rooted in the health system's plans to open a clinic that offers medication-assisted treatment in Amherst.
Well before word of those plans was released publicly this year, Catholic Health worked through Erie County to discuss its proposal with local officials.
During the initial session in April 2016, Schad, Councilwoman Deborah Bruch Bucki and Benjamin Swanekamp, a representative from the Erie County Executive's Office, heard Catholic Health officials' plans to offer methadone and other medication-assisted treatment at their existing clinic on Sheridan Drive.
Catholic Health later proposed to offer the expanded services at 910 Millersport Highway, less than one mile away, after the owner of the Sheridan Drive building declined to renew the clinic's lease. Catholic Health revealed updated information about its plans to move to 910 Millersport at a July 2016 meeting that Schad did not attend.
Jaeger's news release criticizes Schad for learning of the 910 Millersport plans at the April 2016 meeting and not saying anything about it at the time. Jaeger, who is town clerk, acknowledges she made a mistake in the timeline.
Schad's attendance at the April 2016 meeting was disclosed in Catholic Health's application to the state Health Department for a certificate of need for the move of the clinic. The Buffalo News obtained a copy of the application through a Freedom of Information Law request.
Schad said he did not receive a formal invitation to the forum.
"I found out about this meeting, and that's why I went," he said.
Schad is incorrectly identified in the Health Department application as chair of the Amherst Town Board, a position that does not exist, instead of chair of the town Democratic Committee.
Jaeger said it was inappropriate for Schad to attend the meeting.
"This is work that should be left to elected representatives and not someone misrepresenting and playing as an elected official," she wrote.
But Cavanaugh said someone from the system simply made an error in writing down Schad's title at the meeting, and that's how it ended up incorrect on the application.
"It was just a simple mistake," she said.
Jaeger said she still doesn't think Catholic Health should have had private meetings with officials instead of open meetings with neighbors to hear about the system's plans for the clinic.
Jaeger said she is a volunteer firefighter who understands the need for a medication-assisted treatment facility in the town.
"It's a disaster, simply put, the opioid crisis. At the same time, I'm an elected official. I look out for the residents," Jaeger said. "We just need to find a better location."
Schad said Jaeger, who is running against Williamsville Mayor Brian Kulpa, the Democratic supervisor candidate, is making political hay over the clinic. Jaeger previously held a news conference outside 910 Millersport.
"Medical treatment should be available, period," Schad said. "It should not become a wedge issue in a political campaign."
And Cavanaugh said Catholic Health met with officials first last year to make sure the system had their support before bringing neighbors into informational meetings.
Jaeger has not directly raised any concerns with the system, as far as Cavanaugh knows.
But, she said, "We would be happy to talk to Marjory."