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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.”

BART FRAENKEL July 11, 2012 at 01:54 PM
This story will not go away quickly. Pure and simple, this was a power play on the part of the mayor to disband/reorganize the BOH for the purpose of controlling how future decisions about merchant violations are dealt with. The public will have a long memory about this in November when Mr. Krauss and Mr. Fernandez, who both voted in favor of the ordinance to make the change, are up for re-election. And Mr. Fernandez still doesn't understand that his speaking on behalf of a merchant at a BOH hearing, which only occurs after 3 failed inspections, was improper for a sitting member of the TC, let alone the deputy mayor.
Chrys July 11, 2012 at 02:04 PM
I liked how Mayor Koch constantly asked “How’m I doing?” He got lots of praise and equal amounts of blame. People constantly told him how they felt the City was progressing and how he was managing it. He was re-elected twice during the early 1980s and defeated in 1989. I like the idea of asking “how’m I doing?” Would the Mayor entertain the idea of setting-up a website designated strictly for residents to voice their praises and dislikes regarding his decisions? Mr. Koch did not have the luxury of such a sophisticated system; nonetheless, he accomplished to successfully run one of the biggest cities in the world all the while publicly asking its citizens for their input. Is there any other way?
Princess Valiant July 11, 2012 at 03:04 PM
To re-quote Mr. Bergen from the above article, "Shehady, then Mayor, pressured the Board to take a lax approach to enforcement with Farmers’ Market vendors." It is not just Farmers' Market vendors, it is any food-related establishment in Springfield. Lax approach to what may effect my health, my family's health, this is not an option for my town. Really sad (and disgusting). Mr. Shehady, shall I start writing about what I have seen. You know, just as a public alert system.
Shane Ronan July 11, 2012 at 04:55 PM
Does anyone have any actual proof that Mayor Shehady pressured anyone to do anything here, other then the word of the former township attorney who is well known does not get along with Mayor Shehady? Has there been any public health issues in town since this vote? Why does everyone automatically assume the new configuration will result in public health issues? Perhaps the reason that the speakers at the meeting did not change anyone's mind is that everything they said had already been said or was already known by the members of the TC. You assume they hadn't done their homework regarding this issue and were simply backing the Mayors power grab, but I can tell you based on my discussions with the members and my OWN research this is simply not the case. To this day, no one has made a rational statement about why the Board of Health should have stayed as a independent entity, other then that is the way it's always been. And trust me, I don't always agree with the township committee, anyone who was at the meeting at Sarah Bailey after hurricane Irene knows that. And for anyone who says that was a different time, the person who got my heat is our current Deputy Mayor.
Andrew Schwartz July 11, 2012 at 06:15 PM
I find Mr. Cancro's reference to the town's health system being a "three-legged stool" puzzling. In my experience, when you remove one-leg from a three-legged stool, you usually wind up falling to the floor.
BART FRAENKEL July 11, 2012 at 06:36 PM
Shane, if you had the chance to read the email correspondence between the mayor and the BOH and Dr. Shah, your question would be answered. If you didn't read it, then I'd suggest you look at the post on here where someone did include links for them. In addition, the mayor called Dr. Shah and yelled at him. How do I know this, Dr. Shah stated it himself, so it's not as if it's heresay. Now you can choose to believe or not believe Dr. Shah, but from my first hand experience with the mayor I choose to believe it because I have witnessed that type of behavior from him before. As a matter of fact, anyone attending or watching the broadcast of the final ordinance reading saw his poor behavior firsthand.
BART FRAENKEL July 11, 2012 at 06:50 PM
I've got to admit that Anthony D's rhetoric is much more low key then usual and his position, which I don't agree with, aren't combined with his usual derogatory comments about the people he disagrees with. But, as usual, he's wrong. First, there were clearly more then 50 people attending the TC meeting. There are approximately 8 rows of seating on each side with about 8 chairs in each row and the room was almost fully packed. He is also wrong about the first time the Health Dept officer reported a violation with a vendor at the Farmer's Market. It was in 2010, during Shehay's year as mayor. Mr. Krauss didn't like what happened and neither did the mayor; but the health officer was just doing her job. The fact that it was a black mark for a vendor in an area they were trying to expand created the issue. Let's just remember what Shehady said, that if his 'tireless work and efforts' aren't appreciated, that he'd leave. We can only hope that's one promise he will keep.
Margaret Bandrowski July 11, 2012 at 07:20 PM
I find it interesting that in his mayor's letter in the new Patriot Mr. Shehady warns about coyotes. Not a month ago, the position of the Republicans was that the then-Board of Health was using "stories" about coyotes as a scare tactic. Do the facts change with the weather, Mr. Shehady? And when is the next meeting of the newly established Board scheduled, so we can all put it on our calendars?
Chrys July 11, 2012 at 07:35 PM
Mr. Anthony D, you seem to be a disorganized person! I may seem oblivious but I have been paying attention. I think people are afraid of contacting anyone because personal information seems to be used in a negative way, so people tend to refrain from using e-mail. I haven't changed my mind about the turf field and continue to say the majority of the people did not agree with the turf field, and only those who propagated for it were heard. I am not sure why you brought that up, but there are many things you say that are incoherent and disjointed. I believe residents are beginning to see how futile it is to attend meetings that are simply theatrical and already have a pre-determined resolution and no matter the argument the people have, it will be voted down.
Chrys July 11, 2012 at 08:31 PM
Mr. Anthony D, you are not only disjointed but unintelligible, and your opinion about my thoughts, well, are miniscule compared to what many see what you scribble here.
BART FRAENKEL July 11, 2012 at 08:36 PM
Anthony, your comments actually make me smile (laugh, really) whenver you post them. I'm always amazed about how you can be wrong so often. First, you are correct that there were promotions taking place that evening. However, my reference to the number of people at the TC meeting was based on who was there after the promotions; before they were completed there were probably close to 150 people (at least). Second, 8 x 8 does equal 64, but there are 2 sections of seating, one on each side of the room, as I stated. I'd say there was close to 100 people at the meeting, and that's not from watching it on my computer, but from being there, too. Lastly, I wouldn't ever want to put words in your mouth, heaven forbid that I actually was close enough to you to be able to reach into that germ infested area.
BART FRAENKEL July 11, 2012 at 10:05 PM
Anthony, according to you anyone who was against the ordinance must have a political agenda, unlike you who is totally impartial politically. And regardless of who was against it, apparently only certain residents have the right to voice their opposition, right?
Shane Ronan July 12, 2012 at 12:14 AM
Bart, I did read ALL the emails between Dr. Shah and the Mayor. And I saw several cases where the Mayor reached out to Dr. Shah only to be ignored. Only when there was a threat of a change to the BOH did Dr. Shah respond, by sending an email to the entire TC and BOH in violation of the law. Never did a see any FACTS that show it would be harmful to the town, for this change to happen. I give the TC significant leeway to make decisions on whats best for the town, since they were democratically elected, unlike the members of the BOH who were appointed. And frankly, just because the Mayor might have yelled at someone (which I don't think is the way someone in that position should handle themselves) doesn't mean they were right. In that case, maybe both sides were wrong.
Shane Ronan July 12, 2012 at 12:28 AM
Just to be clear, I was/am in support of the change. I regularly choose not to speak at township meetings on politically charged issues, because on Tuesday nights I ride as a member of the Springfield First Aid Squad and I am in uniform. I do not think it would be correct to associate the First Aid Squad with these issues, so I choose sit and listen. This was the case at the last meeting, until I was called out for a medical call. I did however speak at the last TC meeting, at the very end, asking that the town added a "Children At Play" sign to my street, I hope no one has issue with that. I have two small children, if I truly thought the changes to the Board of Health were dangerous or posed risk, I would absolutely not support them. And when I've had questions or issues regarding decisions that were being made, I have asked questions and expressed my opinion directly to those involved. As I said in a previous post, I was very unhappy with the towns initial response to hurricane Irene and I made this known to the new Deputy Mayor, very publicly. I think in the case of the BOH, the issue comes down whether or not you trust the current majority on the TC. If you do, then you are comfortable with this change, if you don't then you wouldn't be. There is really no amount of banter back and forth that will change this fact.
BART FRAENKEL July 12, 2012 at 02:35 AM
Shane, while we disagree on a number of issues, you have always presented your opinion respectfully. Since you understand that as a uniformed member of the SFAS its better to avoid getting involved in issues at the TC meetings but out of uniform, as a resident, you can express your opinion--- so maybe you can explain to me why it was alright for Mr. Fernandez, as the current deputy mayor, to speak on behalf of a merchant called to a BOH hearing for multiple violations. My concern with the recent changes tasking the TC with BOH decisions is all of the people involved should understand their place and Mr. Fernandez has already shown bad judgement and favoritism.
Bob Groder July 12, 2012 at 02:40 PM
I was away from my computer with a real business to run so i have stayed away from this issue but now i will state A FACT of an issue i had at a chinese restaurent. ( and i saw other issues at this place and others which now ill pay more attention to) I almost choked on a shrimp tail as it accidentally got in my wonton soup at a chinese restaurent in town., i wont name the place as they corrected the problem as when i went back they were a lot more careful. Ill give them a pass since ive been going here for a long time and when i go now i look at htings i can see. what i dont like i see in this place ( and others) is they place all silverware on the table which is cleaned with a dmap clooth with chemicals. I hate when all restaurents do this as they often dont put them on top of a napkin the way it should be done for health reasons. I dont care if that table is cleaned 25 times NO SILVERWARE should be on a table and htis place always does it. when i eat there i force them to give me new silverware and an additional napkin to place them on. maybe i am nitpicking but this appears to not be a healthy or wise way to serve the public. I am going to call the board of haleth and handle it internally rather than report them in a public forum. I refuse to go on here and embarass anyone as that is just unprofessional. since we have multiple chinese restaurents in town Ill leave it at that.
Bob Groder July 12, 2012 at 02:42 PM
this isnt to blame the new board since this just happened recently with the shrimp tail in the soup but the placing of silverware on tables without them being on top of a napkin needs to be addressed. please let me know how and who i can report this to? i will not let this go. I have had enough. as for this issue like i told mr krauss i didnt agree with the vote but will give the TC a chance to prove to me it was the right decision. if i feel its wrong and hurting the citizens ill say somehting plus ill vote accordingly in november. I have to honestly say that meeting 2 weeks ago was a waste of my time as the TC had their minds made up and i counted a lot more than 50 people there as i was in attendance. this is a broken record arguing on a forum so ill keep my opinions brief on this meeting from 2 weeks ago. however if i see some lies being stated then i have to speak up further. 1 of those lies stated was less than 50 people wrre present. NOT TRUE! in my opinion this reorganization was a done deal 3-2 before the meeting even started and was all done as a power play. i do agree with those who have said that.
Bob Groder July 12, 2012 at 02:48 PM
btw I didnt have any shrimp as part of my meal so there was no chance of me having it drop in the soup. the restaurent admitted they goofed and i accepted their apology. i dont want to have anyone think im out to get any restaurent in town as in fact i stayed away from the place of this alleged incident but have since given them a 2nd chance. my only issue with them now is the silverware sitting on a table cleaned with chemicals on all of the tables once they remove the tablecloths which they do rather early.
Shore Girl July 14, 2012 at 02:28 PM
I could not care less about this or any other stuff in Springfield! They are going to all do what they want to do! Nothing will ever change here! i couldn't care a turf field, downtown. pool etc!!!
Bob Groder July 15, 2012 at 02:42 PM
sad but true shore girl. one day maybe we can change how things are run here. its why i refuse to give up.

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