, Salem, MA


May 22, 2013

Our view: Leadership in short supply on Salem Board of Health issue

There was a time when the debate over the Salem Board of Health was about the proper size of the board and how best to provide intelligent, experienced, apolitical supervision of one of the city’s most important departments.

Now, with the City Council’s refusal to move on Mayor Kim Driscoll’s appointments to the board, and councilors’ refusal to explain their inaction, it has become clear this is more a turf war than a public policy debate. And no one — not the City Council, the mayor, or even the Board of Health members stuck in political purgatory — appears ready to break the deadlock. The city and its citizens are poorer for it.

There’s much tortured history here. The debate began last November, when the Board of Health petitioned the City Council to cut its size from seven members to five.

It was an entirely reasonable proposal, given the fact that the last time the board had a full complement of seven members was 2011.

Salem’s board has had seven slots since the 1970s, when the panel managed what was then the city-owned Shaughnessy-Kaplan Rehabilitation Hospital. The city gave up control of the hospital years ago; now part of the Partners HealthCare System, it’s called the Spaulding Hospital for Continuing Medical Care North Shore.

The proposal to reduce the size of the board to five members won the support of the council’s Committee on Public Safety, Health and the Environment. The full council, however, sandbagged the measure.

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

The problem is, Ryan was wrong. The board is broken.

The board, which oversees the city’s health agent and other staffers, canceled meetings in December, January and March because it lacked the required quorum of four people. Member Larissa Lucas resigned from the board in December, saying the mayor “could have supported us better.” It’s difficult to imagine how the panel can move forward with its work with its very makeup — now and in the future — still up for debate.

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