The Springfield Township Committee is considering dramatic changes to the township’s board of health. While officials tout the move as a cost-saving effort, current members of the board of health and township observers characterize the proposed changes as a power grab that disregards public health and safety.
The Board, presently composed of seven residents appointed by the Township Committee, 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.
“This provides greater and much needed oversight of public health matters and ensures consistency with the goals of the Township to reduce cost, streamline government and increase efficiency,” Springfield Mayor Ziad Shehady said in a statement.
The change was introduced at the May 8 Township Committee meeting. Current members of the Board of Health met with Shehady before the committee meeting to raise concerns about the proposed change.
“The Board of Health is opposed to this ordinance to dissolve the autonomous board and absorb it into the governing body,” board members said in a collective statement. “We feel that an autonomous board is in the best interests of the community as we are citizens of the community who can devote our time and resources to public health.”
The proposed change is legal under state law, and several municipalities have boards of health composed of elected officials, including Millburn and South Brunswick.
The Township Committee and the Board of Health have butted heads on several issues, notably animal control and citations of prominent Township businesses. Last year, Springfield switched animal services to Millburn’s animal control. While board of health members disapprove of Millburn animal control service, under new guidelines, they do not have oversight of it.
“The Mayor feels that when we discuss animal control issues that it undermines the town’s control,” health board chair Samir Shah said during a board meeting.
Nonetheless, older issues with the Millburn animal control service were referenced during the meeting. The board complained that the services were changed without their knowledge and said that the Millburn service took as long as sixth months to deliver animal control reports to the Westfield Health Department.
During the public comments section of the May 8 committee meeting, Shehady briefly addressed the proposed change to the board. He said that the board of health was unnecessarily costing taxpayers $40,000 in reference to Springfield’s contract with the Westfield Health Department. Springfield currently pays about $130,000 to the Westfield office; Springfield officials and administrators are exploring other services. Board members said that while they knew the town was negotiating with other health departments, they haven’t seen any proposals and therefore haven’t had a chance to make a decision.
Several prominent township businesses have recently had issues with the board of health. Sofia’s restaurant, which had violated health guidelines by serving homemade desserts, reportedly refused to let an inspector into their kitchen. racked up multiple violations; Deputy Mayor Jerry Fernandez reportedly appeared on their behalf in front of the board.
Board members said they believed officials viewed their health enforcement as anti-business. The board members argued that the rulings benefits consumers and the businesses—Shah said that and Seabra were using the practices enforced by Springfield inspections as models for their other locations. Also, said, the guidelines were staving off potential public relation nightmares.
“Nothing, nothing, nothing is worse for your business than a food-borne outbreak,” Avallone said.
Board of Health members believe officials are acting on behalf of businesses that object to code enforcement.
“After the hearing on Seabra, it was the next day that the Mayor threatened to dissolve the board,” Shah said.
Shehady said the problems stemmed from the board taking too punitive an approach towards code enforcement. The board, he said, was too quick to call for hearings on business violators. He said he’d prefer that inspectors make on-site recommendations and instructions instead of bringing the businesses before the health board.
“It would be a more common sense approach,” Shehady said. “When you lose common sense in government, people lose faith in government.”
Democratic committee candidate and former chair of the Planning Board Margaret Bandrowski characterized the move as a power play by officials unhappy with an autonomous government body.
“I think it’s totally objectionable that because he disagrees with them, he’s changing the whole system,” Bandrowski said.
The ordinance passed first reading four to one, with David Amlen, the committee's liaison to the board of health, lodging the only dissenting vote. The final hearing will be on June 26.