Springfield Board of Health Chair Dr. Samir Shah doesn’t think the whole story is presented in Ziad Shehady’s latest message from the Mayor.
The message, printed , is largely concerned with proposed changed to the board of health. The Board, presently composed of seven residents appointed by the , meets monthly and steers the Township’s health and safety regulations. Along with the Township Committee, it is one of two governmental bodies in Springfield that can pass ordinances. Under the proposed change to township ordinance, that configuration would be replaced by a board of health made up of the Township Committee members and two residents with expertise in public health.
While Shah took issue Shehady’s individual points, he said its premise was essentially flawed.
“His letter focuses on reducing cost,” Shah said. “It doesn’t focus on increased risk to residents.”
In his letter, Shehady says there was a lack of communication between the Board of Health and the Township Committee. Shah said that the Board members had reached out repeatedly to the Committee through letters and other communications and attributed the miscommunication to indifference from elected officials.
“In 2010 and 2011, Jerry Fernandez was the town liaison to the Board of Health,” Shah said. “He only showed up to five meeting each year. He made it clear in 2011 he didn’t have time and wasn’t interested in contributing to Board of Health. His absence contributed to lack of communication.”
Shehady said that he made several overtures to the board members but received no response; he said that he attempted to reach the board and Health Department in March and April both via phone and email. 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 liasion. 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.
Shah also objected to Shehady’s characterization of the board as anti-business. In his message, Shehady accused the board of scaring vendors away from Springfield’s Farmers Market and forcing business to attend hearings instead of having full-time Health Department staff work with businesses. Shah said Shehady misrepresents the board and the health office’s approach to business violations.
“The staff work extensively with them,” Shah said, explaining that businesses are only brought in front of the board after falling short of requirements in three inspections in a year. “When we bring them to board hearings, we tell them to get their act together.”
He said that the board’s top priority is to make sure the public doesn’t get sick because of something preventable, which the majority of issues before the board are.
“All of us want more investment and restaurants in downtown Springfield, but we don’t that to be a place where people get sick,” Shah said.
Shah also dismissed the accusation that the board was fear-mongering about animal scares. In the letter, Shehady says the board members are “using stories of coyotes to scare the public” despite that the health department only has legal jurisdiction over animal attacks when the animals are suspected of having rabies.
Shah emphasized that the July 2011 report of a coyote attack was both real and serious, with the victim requiring serious medical attention. In addition, Shah noted that Deputy State Public Health Veterinarian Colin Campbell said that according to state law, when a coyote attacks a person or pet, it is considered a suspect rabid animal. In his Mayor's Message and in a subsequent interview, Shehady emphasized that wild animals are the responsibility of the the state Department of Wildlife and police.
In the letter, Shehady dismisses the need for an autonomous board. Shah said that autonomy was critical for a health board’s mission of pubic health.
“We’re only looking out for the health and safety of residents,” Shah said. “We’re not looking for reelection or for campaign donations from businesses or individuals.”
He added: “In politics, you only need to please 51 percent of the people. In public health, if you only keep healthy from preventable causes that’s not good enough. Even 80 percent isn’t good enough.”
Shehady questioned the notion that the board members are above politics.
"All of the members of the board are appointed by the parties in power," Shehady said. "They are not above politics. They are political appointees."