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.
This March, the council voted to ask Driscoll to make appointments so the Board of Health could meet its four-member quorum. Driscoll did just that, sending in the names of current members Barbara Poremba, Gayle Sullivan and Martin Fair (Danielle Ledoux, a pediatric ophthalmologist, was appointed earlier this spring to replace Lucas). All are competent and qualified.
Now, without saying why, the council has decided to sit on those appointments, sending them to committee even as they approve dozens of other names for other panels. Ryan said the council may get around to discussing the issue at the end of the month. Maybe.
For its part, after being rebuffed in their attempt to reduce the size of their panel to five, the remaining Board of Health members have petitioned the council to cut that number to three. That proposal was also shuttled off to committee and has yet to be discussed.
In the meantime, Driscoll has said, through an aide, that she won’t appoint anyone else to the Board of Health until the issue of its size is resolved, which is sure to rankle those already opposed to making a reduction. Technically, the Board of Health is still a seven-member panel and will be until any change is made permanent through a home rule petition to the Legislature.
So what we have now is a stalemate. Communication between all sides has broken down, and the public, which has a direct interest in a competently functioning Board of Health, has heard next to nothing on the topic from the City Council.
As we have said on these pages before, we think a three-member Board of Health is best for the city. Many communities, including Peabody, Danvers and Beverly, use three-member boards to no ill effect.
There is, however, room for reasonable discussion. If councilors oppose that idea, it’s time for them to speak up and say why, and to propose a different solution to the problem. If the debate is really centered around unresolved issues between the council and the mayor, it’s time to clear the air. If there’s any room for compromise, it’s time to hear it now.
Resolving the issue requires one or more of the city’s elected officials to set aside petty politics and make that first move toward an agreement that benefits the city. It’s why they were elected in the first place.