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Springfield Committee Debates Health Board Future

Township Committee members argue for overhaul, disagree with board over treatment of businesses and animal control.

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.

Princess Valiant May 14, 2012 at 01:47 PM
What this article says only proves correct the rumors that swirl around Springfield about health code violations in food service/restaurant/grocery venues. Springfield missed the boat when designing the downtown and not incorporating our Colonial American history. Now, to entice businesses (and so many are food-based) to open in our downtown, it is necessary to 'overlook' health code violations.
Margaret Bandrowski May 14, 2012 at 02:57 PM
I can't believe that believe it okay to "overlook" multiple violations of the state mandated health code for the sake of business. Those businesses know what the law is and had plenty of time to correct the violations. This is a matter of the health and safety of all the residents of Springfield, including, above all, the children. You are asking that inspectors overlook the laws by which they are bound.
BART FRAENKEL May 14, 2012 at 04:35 PM
This is just another unfortunate example of Mr. Shehady trying to control a situation by telling the Board of Health to do it his way or he will disband them. The people appointed to the township's board of health are typically chosen based on a level of expertise in that area and shouldn't be subject to this type of harrassment by the governing body. The board has never had problems with previous administrations, Mr. Shehady's included, in the past, but now that he's begun dictating terms and they don't agree, the outcome might be him disbanding them. The bad behavior goes beyond Mr. Shehady, when deputy mayor, Mr. Fernandez, goes before the board of healht on behalf of a merchant. It is not the place of elected officials to speak on behalf of merchants when it comes to potential health violations. It's time the other TC members stopped being followers and started thinking for themselves. They should leave it to the professionals whose jobs are to safeguard the public.
rfriedman May 14, 2012 at 06:14 PM
Why is it that whenever anyone disagrees with the mayor Anthony D comes to his rescue with insulting comments about the person posting? The more I read his comments the more I am inclined to believe Anthony D is Mr. Shehady.
BART FRAENKEL May 14, 2012 at 07:17 PM
Unlike Anthony D, I have the courage to post my comments here under my own name. The issue with the mayor is that despite the fact that Springfield has a township COMMITTEE form of government, he continues to feel he runs the show by himself. I disagreed with that while serving on the TC and I continue to disagree with that philosophy.
Shane Ronan May 14, 2012 at 08:17 PM
Mr. Fraenkel, How do you figure he feels that he runs the show himself? I do believe the vote went 4-1 including one Democratic member of the committee, how is that running the show himself?
M Quinn May 14, 2012 at 10:24 PM
As a concerned citizen and medical professional, I strongly believe politics does not have a place in public health. The board of health is comprised of a group of volunteer professionals who can act objectively to safeguard the public. They do not have personal agendas and short term interests. We should be thankful for their time and dedication to this town.
M Quinn May 15, 2012 at 01:41 AM
As a concerned citizen and medical professional, I strongly believe politics does not have a place in public health. The board of health is comprised of a group of volunteer professionals who can act objectively to safeguard the public. They do not have personal agendas and short term interests. We should be thankful for their time and dedication to this town.
Chrys May 15, 2012 at 01:49 AM
I would like to see public health be on top of the list -- no matter who runs the show. I believe Mr. Fernandez used poor judgement if he indeed appeared before the board of health on behalf of the merchants. That should have been resolved by those who received the citations, not a committee member. I ate at Sofia's once when it first opened and was not impressed by either the service nor the food, so that is a cross off my list. As far as Seabra's, I was really looking forward to a diversified establishment, and did enjoyed shopping there for quite a few weeks, but that is a goner off my list as well.
The Voice of Reason May 15, 2012 at 03:20 AM
When an elected official intervenes during a hearing on behalf of a violator in an effort to persuade leniency, there is a conflict of interest here. It is unethical. Depending on the circumstances, it could be interpreted as corrupt. Same goes for the Mayor who disagrees with enforcement action and tries to intervene. Smacks of corruption. Now I know not to eat or buy my food from a business located in Springfield. The Board of Health has had their enforcement powers indirectly stripped away. The Board of Health is being politically pressured to make suggestions to unhealthy establishments instead of taking decisive enforcement action or politically pressured by an elected official's influence at enforcement hearings. Couldn't this be illegal?
J. Potito May 16, 2012 at 10:59 AM
Why would the citzens of Springfield want elected politicians to focus on board of health responsibilities? Township committee members should be concentrating on the many existing issues they were elected to manage.
Margaret Bandrowski May 17, 2012 at 04:41 PM
I believe that a TC member appearing to ask the Board go easy on a food establishment with major violations uncorrected after 3 months is in the interest of the business and not the people of Springfield. I did not make that up, Anthony. Nor did I make up the extended discussion at a recent board meeting I attended of whether the health officer was allowed by law to make a return visit at a time more convenient for the business who not only refused to cooperate with the inspection but was also verbally abusive. The unscheduled visits are mandated by state law and admittance is required. There is no discretion on the part of the health officer. The primary concern of the Board of Health and the Dept of Health is and alwys must be the welfare of residents. Any business that has not corrected their defaults for over three months or cannot provide the required paperwork or refuses to allow an inspection deserves censure. The businesses should be willing to work with the regulators before it comes to a hearing. That would be good sense and show good faith to the community. And since the issue is likely to be settled before the election, this concern comes from a care about what goes on in town and how it is being governed - and I think putting the people first is a meaningful contribution, running or not.
J Fuchs May 19, 2012 at 03:19 AM
I too am a healthcare professional and most importantly a Mother; I want to know that the food I am giving my family has passed all health standards and do not risk any harm to them. I take this very seriously and so should the Mayor. It's time to let the committee of knowledgable members in the field do their generous job, enforce standards for all merchants to uphold and not allow poor quality serve this town any longer!
M Quinn May 19, 2012 at 10:59 AM
Wow! The petition to support the current autonomous Board of Health has received overwhelming support. Thank you all for helping to keep politics out of public health.
M Quinn May 23, 2012 at 04:12 PM
This is very scary. According to the January 2012 minutes of the Madison Dept of Health, it appears Springfield is looking at switching to them. To get a lower price, it says the Town Administrator asked for lower hours. Why is this so secretive? This does not sound good for health and safety.See this link, page 4. http://www.rosenet.org/uploads/16/minutes_jan_17_12_meeting.pdf
Shane Ronan June 04, 2012 at 09:41 PM
I'm asking again, because after two weeks I received no reply. How is Mayor Shehady running the show by himself, when three of the other four members of the TC including a democrat voted in favor?
M Quinn June 05, 2012 at 01:38 AM
Mr. Ronan, I personally spoke to Mr. Huber who voted for the ordinance only to open it for discussion because apparently he knew nothing about it. Unfortunately, there hasn't been much discussion. There are still a lot of questions that remain unanswered. Mr. Huber took the time to attend the next Board of Health meeting to get some answers and now fully supports an autonomous Board of Health. So obviously the vote did not equate with supporting the ordinance. When he saw the importance of an autonomous Board he made the right choice for himself, his family, and this community. That is a man of character. In addition, i received an email today from Jerry Fernandez stating that he plans to hear other arguments that may change his views. He is also planning to attend the next BOH meeting to discuss this further. He assured me he is an independent thinker. At the township committee meeting, I asked if any member of the TC knew anything about the contract with Madison that Springfield has signed a letter of intent to provide services with. If you watch the video you will see that it does appear that several people were in the dark. There is apparently a lot going on in the background here. Unfortunately, this is not in the best interest of the town. Is this how we define transparency when the TC does not even know what's going on? We will see who the independent thinkers are on 6/26. Please consider your votes carefully. The town is watching.
Margaret Bandrowski June 06, 2012 at 03:16 PM
Shane- I would like to comment that the procedure in introducing an ordinance is to open it for discussion and a yes vote does not necessarily indicate approval. Mr. Huber's vote when the ordinance was introduced was for that procedural purpose only and does not mean he is favor of the action itself. When the ordinance is up for a vote on June 26, that is the vote that will count.
Nicole Waknine June 08, 2012 at 01:10 AM
"The Greenspoon husband and wife team have been the lawyers for this dysfunctional Board of Health for years." Anthony D, maybe you should do some fact checking before you leave comments. Mr. Greenspoon has not been the attorney for the board of health in over 20 years. Mrs. Greenspoon is just starting her second year as the attorney. Also, the attorney for the Board of Health is not in the position to play "games and favorites with businesses." In fact, if that is really something you are so worried about then it is really the Mayor you should have a problem with.
Chrys June 08, 2012 at 03:36 PM
Anthony, I am curious to know your inside information... you seem to insinuate that you have some. Are the Health Board members not well-versed in what they do? I thought the members had to have some type of expertise about inspections and public safety. I would like to know if they get any type of training; they must, right? I know nothing about the Board and its members, but since you brought the subject to surface, may be you can tell me, and others, if the members lack expertise. Thanks!
M Quinn June 08, 2012 at 05:04 PM
There have been a number of followup articles in the Union County Local Source newspaper: May 31, 2012: http://www.summitnavigator.com/profiles/blogs/residents-frustrated-with-possible-board-of-health-dissolution May 17, 2012: http://www.summitnavigator.com/profiles/blogs/committee-considers-ordinance-to-disband-springfield-board-of-hea
a June 12, 2012 at 01:12 PM
everyone who knows what really allegedly goes on knows fernandez allegedly was ziads puppet last yr during tc meetings when ziad was just a spectator. this is politics at its worst.
a June 12, 2012 at 01:13 PM
anthony is a real person,. he does attend meetings. whose side he is on is his own opinion. i dont agree with it but hes entitled to it.
johns June 14, 2012 at 02:44 PM
Funny how John Saccenti is Chair person of the Advisory Board of Health in South Brunswick, and it seems they report to their Town Council who act as the Board of Health. Wonder why he does not fight for his town to have an Advisory Board???
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