, Salem, MA

April 9, 2013

Health board pursuing reduction

By Bethany Bray

---- — SALEM — The Board of Health voted last night to pursue decreasing the board’s makeup from seven to three members.

Although the City Council has discussed the issue previously, the Board of Health has yet to formally petition the council to go to three members. Last night, the board voted to bring an order to the City Council to petition the state Legislature to be able to decrease from seven to three members.

Councilor Thomas Furey, the council’s liaison to the Board of Health, said he would bring the proposal to the council’s meeting on Thursday.

Board of Health Chairwoman Barbara Poremba said a smaller board would be more consistent with surrounding cities, all of which have three-person health boards. Currently, the Salem board is larger than the six-person department it supervises.

Although the Salem Board of Health is a seven-member body, it canceled meetings in December, January and March because it didn’t have the required quorum of four people, due to vacancies and resignations.

Last night, Larissa Lucas, the most recent member to step down, sat in for the meeting. Poremba said Lucas’ resignation in December is “pending replacement.”

In addition to Furey, Councilor William Legault was in the audience at last night’s meeting.

The issue of the Board of Health’s size was brought up in a City Council subcommittee meeting March 26, at which just two councilors made comments in support of shrinking the board to three. Ultimately, the council voted to ask Mayor Kim Driscoll to make appointments so the health board can reach its required quorum of four.

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.

“This is our opportunity to right a wrong,” Poremba said last night.

The last time the Board of Health was operating with its full complement of seven members was 2011, according to Poremba.

In November, the Board of Health petitioned the City Council to decrease its 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 — including Lucas — have resigned.

“We don’t know this process (of going before the City Council),” Lucas said last night. “I feel the mayor could have supported us better.”

Board of Health member Gayle Sullivan disagreed, saying, “We are an autonomous board. ... It doesn’t matter what the mayor’s vision for this board is, what matters is the Board of Health’s vision.”

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