, Salem, MA

June 24, 2013

Mayor seeks 'compromise' with City Council over health board

By Bethany Bray

---- — SALEM — It’s becoming a back-and-forth to rival a professional tennis match.

City councilors will be discussing again the size of Salem’s Board of Health, after Mayor Kim Driscoll submitted a proposal to change the board from seven members to five members this month.

Board of Health members have come before the City Council several times over the past year to speak in favor of reducing the board’s size — most recently, from seven to five members.

Calling the move a “compromise,” Driscoll is asking councilors to revisit a proposal — shrinking the board to five — they voted down in November.

Councilors sent Driscoll’s latest proposal to committee and have yet to schedule a meeting to discuss it. The Board of Health’s April petition to reduce the board to three members is also in committee.

“This has dragged on for too long now,” Driscoll said this week. “ ... We’ve just got to get past this impasse, and I’m hoping the change to five (will accomplish that). I’m just hoping this can be put to rest. I hope we can put everything behind us.”

Driscoll said she ran the idea of a five-member committee by members of the Board of Health and sent them a copy of the June 13 letter she sent to city councilors to ask for their vote of support.

Board of Health members Martin Fair, Barbara Poremba and Gayle Sullivan could not be reached for comment this week.

After months of back-and-forth over its size, the Board of Health is meeting with four members: Poremba, Sullivan, Fair and Danielle Ledoux, a pediatric ophthalmologist who was appointed this spring. The City Council voted to ask Driscoll to appoint a fourth member in March, after several members stepped down and the board was having trouble reaching a quorum.

City councilors will meet to discuss the reappointments of Poremba, Sullivan and Fair — all of whose terms have expired — on Wednesday, June 26.

The Board of Health oversees the health department staff, including the health agent, and sets public health policy for the city. Board members are appointed by the mayor and are not paid.

Salem’s board was enlarged from three, the state standard, to seven in the 1970s to manage a city-owned hospital. The city gave up control of that hospital — the former Shaughnessy-Kaplan Rehabilitation Hospital, now Spaulding Hospital for Continuing Medical Care North Shore — years ago.

Both Driscoll and the Board of Health support repealing the 1972 amendment to state law that allowed the board to go to seven members. Such a change would require a vote of the City Council and passage of a home-rule petition by the state Legislature.

At seven, Salem’s Board of Health is even larger than Boston’s, Driscoll said.

“I’ve always been supportive of the Board of Health’s desire to make the board a little more efficient (by decreasing its size),” Driscoll said. “We took a back seat in terms of advocacy (over the past year) because I didn’t want this to be perceived as anything political.”

In November, the Board of Health petitioned the City Council to decrease the health board’s size from seven to five members and change the department head’s title from health agent to health director. Although a council subcommittee voted to recommend the changes, the full City Council voted against both initiatives.

Beverly, Danvers, Marblehead, Peabody and Swampscott have three-member boards of health; Amesbury, Lynn and Gloucester have five-member boards.

Bethany Bray can be reached at and on Twitter @SalemNewsBB.