Tensions Evident at Health Board Debate
Supporters of autonomous board clash with officials in rancorous meeting.
The health board ordinance did not go down quietly.
The Township Committee meeting where the vote took place was punctuated by frustration and anger by officials, township volunteers and residents. Springfield Mayor Ziad Shehady repeatedly stopped the meeting to admonish spectators for heckling. The spectators bristled at officials’ statements, accusing them of rudeness and unprofessional behavior in comments and exclamations.
Township Administrator Anthony Cancro started the public hearing on the ordinance with statement he said was intended to clear up confusion. He described the town’s health system as a “three legged stool” with its legs comprised of the health code professionals who enforce the rules in the health department, the animal control services and the volunteer board of health. After the definition, he talked about the ordinance’s origins.
“First and foremost, I want the public to know this was my idea,” Cancro said. He characterized the changes as budget minded and shared services-focused and said that he tried to find similar solutions to several departments during his 28-month tenure working for Springfield.
“I would be remiss in my duties if I didn’t seek out ways to save more money and be more efficient,” Cancro said.
Addressing the rumors that the Springfield was negotiating a new contract with the Madison Department of Health, Cancro said that it was one of several organizations the township was considering and denied rumors that he was willing to compromise services. Nonetheless, he said that switching to Madison would save Springfield $40,000 annually.
After Cancro’s statement, Committee member David Amlen suggested tabling the vote.
“Tabling this is in the best interest of the town,” Amlen said. When asked how long the motion should be tabled, he said “indefinitely.”
Mayor Ziad Shehady discounted the idea, saying that he had done his due diligence on the matter. Several members of the crowd at the committee meeting laughed in response to Shehady’s statement, prompting the Mayor to ask residents to take the proceedings more seriously.
After the motion to table the vote failed 3-2, public comments began. While Township Attorney Jeffrey Lehrer advised the Committee members to refrain from responding to questions individually, there were several tense exchanges between officials and residents.
Former township attorney and Union County Freeholder candidate Bruce Bergen said he was disappointed that Shehady used Cancro as a “shill” for his viewpoints and was cut off by Lehrer for making a personal attack. Despite the objection, Bergen—who also served as attorney for the Board of Health—continued, accusing Shehady of spreading falsehoods in his public statements, including his message from the mayor. Shehady retorted that his message was composed of “all facts.”
Bergen traced the animosity between the Board of Health and the Township Committee to 2009, when he was the board’s attorney. He said Shehady, then Mayor, pressured the Board to take a lax approach to enforcement with Farmers’ Market vendors. In addition, he asserted that Springfield’s health costs reduced between 2009 and 2010 when the Committee reduced the budget for the health department.
President of the health board Dr. Samir Shah said that the health board was dissimilar to utilities. The more apt comparison, Shah said, was to health or car insurance. He questioned the cost savings of moving to Madison’s health care department, which he said had a per person cost of $24 where Westfield’s Health Department’s cost only $9 per person.
Former Board of Health Attorney Gale Greenspoon (husband of fellow Board attorney Ellisa Greenspoon) focused on Deputy Mayor Fernandez, who spoke on behalf of Seabbra’s Supermarket at a Board of Health meeting. It wasn’t the only time during the meeting Fernandez was singled out by a resident. Betzable Blondet noted the conditions of his restaurant depicted on the Kitchen Nightmare. Fernandez said the depiction was inaccurate. In addition, Fernandez’s time as a liaison to the committee came under question, as he was accused missing large percentages of meetings.
Fernandez said that professional obligations prevented him from attending meetings in 2011 and that both he and members of the board of health asked that he be replaced as laision. But he said that he teleconferenced into the meetings and that he was in constant contact with the board of health during emergencies like Tropical Storm Irene.
“I’ve never seen a sitting Committee member speaking on behalf of a business with multiple violations,” Greenspoon said.
Huber praised the autonomous volunteer board and said he regretted his first vote in favor of the ordinance.
“I don’t think we should vote on this tonight,” Huber said. “I think it’s stupid. We have a Board of Health with seven people who are doing a good job.”
Huber’s fellow Democrat David Amlen also spoke in favor of keeping the Board of Health autonomous, and questioned the notion that changing it would save money. Amlen asserted that all that was necessary to save money was to budget less for the health department and that more dramatic changes were not necessary.
Republican Marc Krauss said he objected to how the debate had been presented.
“I resent the amount of disinformation,” Krauss said. “We are not dissolving the board.”
In his remarks, Fernandez defended his tenure as liaison to the Board of Health and his appearance on behalf of Seabbra’s. He said that as a resident and a father, he took food and health issues very seriously.
In his lengthy closing remarks, Shehady said that the changes were “years in the making.” Pointing to animal control issues, Shehady said there were documented requests in 2009, 2010 and 2011 with Springfield officials complaining about the expense of the Newark Humane Society. Shehady upbraided the autonomous board for “poor financial stewardship.”
“The Board had become too comfortable and complacent with accepting the status quo,” Shehady said.
He criticized the members of the board for speaking to the media with what he said was inaccurate information. He accused board members and supporters of fear mongering and emphasized that while the decision may have objectors now, the decision would be borne out.
“While in the moment it’s unpopular because it involves our neighbors, in the long run, it’s the solution,” Shehady said.
Following the Springfield Townshp Committee’s 3-2 vote in favor of absorbing the functions of the Board of Health, former Board of Health members and advisors said they were let down by the decision but happy they were able to get the word out about their issues.
“We’re disappointed about the misinformation and the lack of data,” former Board of Health President Dr. Samir Shah said. “We’re disappointed, but we’re glad the town knows what happened.”