By Bethany Bray
---- — SALEM — The City Council moved toward keeping the Board of Health at seven members last night.
After more than an hour of discussion, councilors voted to recommend that Mayor Kim Driscoll appoint enough people to fill the Board of Health to its full complement of seven people.
The Board of Health is in favor of decreasing its size from seven to three members. Currently, the board has only three members, due to vacancies and resignations, and is unable to reach its required quorum of four people to hold meetings.
“You’ve backed us in a corner ... leaving us with little choice,” Councilor Paul Prevey said to Board of Health Chairwoman Barbara Poremba. “Quorum is a problem you’ve created yourselves.”
“I’m not sure if seven is the right number, if five is the right number or if three is the right number ... (but) we have a nonfunctioning Board of Health at this point, and I don’t believe this should have ever happened,” Councilor William Legault said.
Poremba argued that a smaller board would be more efficient, manageable and consistent with surrounding cities, all of whom have three-member boards of health.
“I hope you will recognize the careful thought we’ve put into this,” Poremba said to councilors last night. “... We’re trying to get the board to where we’re productive.”
Last night, Joseph O’Keefe and Josh Turiel were the only councilors to speak in favor of decreasing the Board of Health to three members. Councilors Todd Siegel, Kevin Carr, Robert McCarthy and Thomas Furey were absent.
A vote of the full council at its meeting tomorrow at 7 p.m. at City Hall, 93 Washington St., will be needed to send the recommendation to Driscoll to appoint more people to the Board of Health.
Ultimately, the decision lies with Driscoll; she does not have to act on the council’s recommendation.
“We wanted the council to air this out and vet the Board of Health’s request to try and make their number a little more manageable,” Driscoll said after last night’s council meeting. “If the council is not willing to do that (shrink the board to three), we need to have a functioning Board of Health and we’ll work to do that.
“We were hoping to address it in a way that would bring closure to the issue of size,” she said. “If we appoint seven, it’s hard to say we’ll now consider reducing (the board).”
The Board of Health canceled meetings in January and February because it didn’t have a quorum of four people. The last time the board was at its full complement of seven members was May 2011, Poremba said.
A 1912 state law established local boards of health at three members, Poremba said. Salem’s board was enlarged 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 — decades ago. Now, the Board of Health supports repealing the 1972 amendment to state law that allowed the board to go to seven members.
“There’s no reason for us not to be in compliance with the original 1912 law,” Poremba said.
Such a change would require a vote of the City Council and passage of a home rule petition by the state legislature.
Robert Blenkhorn, a former health agent for the city who is in favor of reducing the board’s size, petitioned the City Council to schedule last night’s discussion of the issue.
A seven-member board is able to break into subcommittees to vet issues and has more people to bounce ideas off, said Christina Harrington, who resigned from the board in 2009.
“I don’t ever recall having to cancel a meeting because of a lack of quorum during the 10 years I was on the board,” Harrington said.
Winter Island Road resident Edward Moriarty called the Board of Health’s recent lack of activity “public health malpractice.”
Shame on the board for not meeting, Moriarty said, and on the mayor for leaving vacancies unfilled. The Board of Health’s past four chairpersons are opposed to decreasing the board’s size, he said.
Moriarty, an attorney, said he has recently applied to be on the Board of Health.
Councilor Michael Sosnowksi said he has received emails from residents who are also interested in serving on the Board of Health but have received no response.
“We have people that want to serve, we have people that want to commit,” Sosnowski said. “... I might think about five (health board members), but certainly not three.”
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.
The Board of Health had five members in November. Since then, two members have stepped down.
Councilor Arthur Sargent told Poremba that the board should have filled its vacancies this winter.
“Once a decision is made, you have to accept the (council’s) vote and move forward,” Sargent said.
“We have a lot of folks who are interested (in serving on the health board), but it didn’t make sense to move forward until we had final discussion with council about makeup of board,” Driscoll said last night. “We need to have a functioning board, as much as I do value the opinion of the members of the Board of Health. ... I support their desire to have a more manageable number.”
Cheryl Sbarra, an attorney with the Massachusetts Association of Health Boards, told councilors last night that she doesn’t know of any community in the state that has a seven-member board of health.
Worcester considered going to seven but decided it was “too unwieldy,” she said.
Salem’s Board of Health is “dead in the water right now, and that’s a problem,” Sbarra said.
Bethany Bray can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter @SalemNewsBB.