SALEM — City councilors voted this week to ask Mayor Kim Driscoll to appoint “up to” four people to the Board of Health, an effort meant to make the board functional once again.
Although Salem’s Board of Health is a seven-member body, it currently has only three members due to resignations and other vacancies. The committee has canceled two meetings this winter because it couldn’t reach the required quorum of four people.
City councilors discussed the issue at a subcommittee meeting Tuesday and voted Thursday to send a recommendation to Driscoll to appoint enough people for the Board of Health to reach a quorum.
Ultimately, the decision lies with Driscoll; she does not have to act on the council’s recommendation.
“We’re asking the mayor to bring it up to its proper size,” said Councilor Arthur Sargent. “I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that.”
“The priority needs to be to get the board functioning,” agreed Councilor Kevin Carr.
The remaining three members of the Board of Health are in favor of decreasing the size of the committee from seven to three members. In past interviews with The Salem News, Mayor Kim Driscoll has said she was holding off on appointing new members until the issue of the board’s size is resolved. She has also indicated, however, that if the council is unwilling to change the size, she would comply with requests to appoint additional members in order to keep the health board functioning.
The Board of Health has not yet submitted an official request to the City Council this year to change the size of the board.
Councilor Paul Prevey said councilors could take a fresh look at the size issue once more members are appointed and the Board of Health is functional.
Prevey argued the Board of Health has created its own quorum problem.
“This entire procedure was done backwards,” Prevey said. “It seems they’ve created the situation. ... They’re backing us up against a wall.”
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 still had five members in November. Since then, two members have stepped down.
A 1912 state law established local boards of health at three members. 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.
Such a change would require a vote of the City Council and passage of a home rule petition by the state Legislature.
Bethany Bray can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter @SalemNewsBB.