By Douglas Moser
---- — METHUEN — The firing of the city’s health director and the privatization of its departments were two of the main issues at City Council debates last night.
Candidates split along district lines on key issues rather than contrasting with each other in the two separate debates.
Both debates were held at the MCTV studio off North Lowell Street last night. Those debates, along with the West District Council debate held Tuesday night, will air starting Friday. Debates for the mayoral race and the at-large council race will air live tonight starting at 6 p.m.
In the Central District debate, incumbents Jamie Atkinson and Lisa Yarid-Ferry said they voted against eliminating public health director Brian LaGrasse, while challenger Jack Cronin, a former City Councilor, said he “was surprised when the position was cut.”
Community development director William Buckley has assumed some of the health director’s responsibilities, but Cronin said a health director has certifications a community development director, whose department covers building, economic development and health issues, does not have.
Ferry said the city has to prove that the department can still handle health issues. “I believe that if there was a public health emergency, we should revisit hiring a public health director,” she said.
Atkinson said the cut “left a poor taste with the citizens of Methuen” and that Buckley does not have the specialized training needed for a public health director’s job.
“The community development director is working three to four hours a day on health issues he doesn’t have the education for,” Atkinson said.
In the East District debate, the candidates, including two incumbents who voted to cut LaGrasse, said the position was not needed.
“It was redundant in the department,” said Councilor Ron Marsan. “We don’t need a director watching a director.”
Councilor Tom Ciulla said the inspectors were carrying the most of the water. “Other communities don’t have health director positions,” he said. “I worked as an inspector (in Everett). The inspectors are doing the majority of the work there.”
Challenger Tom Firth, a former School Committee member, agreed. “It’s a duplication of effort,” he said.
The candidates also were asked under what circumstances they would support privatizing city departments, and the Central District candidates sounded more cautious.
“The only way I believe privatization works is if we’re saving money while maintaining services,” Ferry said.
Atkinson said he would have to see savings “up front” before he would agree to privatize work done by public employees. He and Cronin said other efficiencies can be had, such as improving equipment. Replacing computers in City Hall, for example, helped the Information Technology department, they said.
“The main problem with the IT department in the beginning was they didn’t have the equipment, the technology on board to do the job,” Cronin said. “They were going office to office stealing parts from computers to take to other computers. Since then, we have made the commitment to invest and buy new computers.”
The candidates for the East District said privatization should be done where money can be saved.
“The IT is a huge issue,” Marsan said. “I did vote to privatize IT because I do see the savings, not in the first year, but in the long term. It’s hundreds of thousands of dollars. It comes down to the money. It’s not fair that someone loses their job, but we’re running a business.”
Ciulla, who also voted for Mayor Stephen Zanni’s proposal to privatize the IT department’s services that ultimately failed, said he wanted to make sure residents would not be affected before he supported a privatization.
“When it’s saving the citizens hundreds of thousands of dollars it’s worth it,” he said.
Firth said he would consider privatizing smaller services, like IT, but said it does not work for larger departments. “In groups like IT it might work, but when you privatize to an outside company, their costs can exceed the cost for our employees,” he said.
The election for City Council, mayor and School Committee is Nov. 5.
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