, Salem, MA

March 12, 2013

Our view: Time to reduce the size of the Salem Board of Health

The Salem News

---- — “The request is very simple, consistent with history and is common sense. 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.”

— Barbara Poremba, chairwoman of the Salem Board of Health

Barbara Poremba has a point. The current makeup of the Salem Board of Health is not serving the needs of the public, and the City Council should move as soon as possible to fix the problem.

At issue is the fact that the board cannot find enough interested, qualified citizens to serve as members. While it is supposed to have seven members, it is currently “working” with only three, thanks to vacancies and resignations. The board has been forced to cancel two of its last four meetings because it could not meet its required quorum.

The simple truth is a seven-member Board of Health is too large. Many surrounding communities, including Peabody, Danvers and Beverly, have three-member health boards that seem to function without a problem.

Salem’s board was enlarged in the 1970s to manage what was then a city-owned hospital. The city ceded control of that hospital, Shaughnessy-Kaplan Rehabilitation Hospital, many years ago. Now part of the Partners Heath Care System, it’s called the Spaulding Hospital for Continuing Medical Care North Shore.

A good argument could be made a large Board of Health was needed then. That’s not the case now, when the board, with seven members, outnumbers the health department staff, with six.

The city’s health agent, Larry Ramdin, sees the need for change.

“It’s impossible to really transact any business the board needs to transact,” Ramdin told reporter Bethany Bray. “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.”

In a letter on these pages last month, former city Health Agent Robert Blenkhorn said a move to a three-member board would “steer the board members toward their primary responsibility: protecting public health.”

The City Council had a chance to address the issue last year but chose to reject a plan to reduce the board to five members.

“I don’t think it’s broken, so I don’t think it needs to be fixed,” Councilor Jerry Ryan said at the time.

That decision brought the following response from now-former board member Larissa Lucas, also in a letter to the editor: “The Board of Health needs to streamline our processes to make it easier for businesses to navigate the system and citizens to receive the advocacy they deserve. A ‘don’t fix what isn’t broken’ attitude is plaguing our city government.

“We are a volunteer board that goes unrecognized because what we produce cannot be seen,” Lucas wrote in her November 2012 letter. “Every time you eat at a restaurant and do NOT get sick, you have our department to thank.”

You have the current board chairwoman, Poremba, and a former member, Lucas, advocating strongly for a smaller, more efficient board. The current health director agrees, as does a former city health agent. These are the people the city has entrusted with the health of its citizens. If they say the system is broken, maybe it’s time to listen.