, Salem, MA

March 11, 2013

Health board asks to resize

7-member panel oversees 6 Salem employees; council rejected previous request

By Bethany Bray

---- — SALEM — At its full complement of seven members, the Board of Health is larger than the department it supervises, which has just six employees.

“That doesn’t make sense,” said Barbara Poremba, who chairs the board.

That’s why she and other board members intend to ask the City Council — again — in the coming months to reduce the size of the health board, even though the council voted against the idea in November.

“The request is very simple, consistent with history and is common sense,” Poremba said. “Our purpose is to ensure the health of the community. We are not a political board, and somehow this issue is being made political. And I don’t think that’s very productive.”

Although it’s supposed to have seven members, the health board currently has only three, due to vacancies and resignations. The board has canceled two of its last four meetings because it couldn’t get the required quorum of four people.

Mayor Kim Driscoll said she is holding off on appointing people to the Board of Health until the issue of the board’s size is resolved.

“The board is very much interested in revisiting this issue with the council,” Driscoll said. “It doesn’t make sense to appoint additional members if (the board ends up being resized). There are some long-standing board members that have given lots of time and feel strongly. ... I want to give them the opportunity to work with the council on it.”

The Board of Health normally meets once a month. The board did meet on Nov. 13 and Feb. 12 but canceled meetings on Dec. 11 and Jan. 8. Its next meeting is scheduled for tomorrow.

Health Agent Larry Ramdin said it’s affecting his day-to-day work.

“It’s impossible to really transact any business the board needs to address,” Ramdin said. “If I have to move for a suspension order on a place or bring any orders for hearings before the board, I can’t ... because the board lacks a quorum to meet.”

Robert Blenkhorn, a former health agent for the city, is in favor of reducing the size of the Board of Health and petitioned the City Council this winter to be able to weigh in on the issue. A meetin g is not yet scheduled, but councilors voted Feb. 28 to agree to his request for a discussion.

In November, the City Council voted against a request 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. Both issues were initiated and supported by the Board of Health. Neither would have changed the duties or authority of the department or board.

Several councilors were skeptical of the board’s inability to get a quorum and expressed reluctance to change a setup that has worked for decades.

The council’s Committee on Public Health, Safety and the Environment had previously held a discussion of the issues and voted to recommend both changes.

An issue can be brought to the City Council once per calendar year. Now that it’s 2013, the Board of Health plans to petition the council to reduce the board to three members.

Many surrounding communities, including Peabody, Danvers and Beverly, have three-member boards of health.

“It works for everyone else,” Poremba said. “Why wouldn’t it work for us?”

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 Salem Board of Health, at that time, was really a large health department,” she said. “We had double the staff we have now.”

The city gave up control of that hospital — Shaughnessy-Kaplan Rehabilitation Hospital — decades ago. Now called Spaulding Hospital for Continuing Medical Care North Shore, it is part of the Partners Health Care system.

Now, Poremba said, the Board of Health supports repealing the 1972 amendment to state law that allowed the board to go to seven members.

“We really have no reason to have an expansion of the board,” she said.

Poremba stressed that the idea is coming from the board itself — not the mayor. The board asked Driscoll not to appoint anyone new until the issue is resolved, she said.

“We’re not political,” she said. “... It was very demoralizing not to have the City Council back us. ... We gave it a lot of thought and careful consideration. (This time) we want to make sure everyone understands what we’re asking for, and understands what we mean.”

A professor in Salem State University’s nursing department, Poremba has been on Salem’s Board of Health for more than a decade.

In November, when the board made its original request to the City Council, the Board of Health had five members. Since then, two people have left the board.

In a letter to the editor printed in the Salem News in November, Larissa Lucas, one of the board members who resigned, wrote: “The City Council decision showed no respect for our recommendation and has suspicious political motives, which I cannot begin to imagine.”

Members of the Board of Health are unpaid volunteers.

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