EagleTribune.com, North Andover, MA

July 29, 2013

Lawyer: Health board can't order council

By Brian Messenger

---- — METHUEN — The Board of Health “exceeded its authority” when Chairman Ray Wrobel handed cease and desist letters to city councilors earlier this month, ordering them to restore funding for a health director and public health nurse, according to a lawyer representing the Council.

Council members sought a legal opinion after Wrobel hand-delivered the letters July 10. In the letters, the health board demanded that funding be restored within seven days.

On July 11, lawyer Mark Reich wrote a memo informing councilors they were “not subject to orders of an administrative body” regarding the budget. Reich works for the private firm Kopelman and Paige, which the council hired in May.

“In my opinion, the Board of Health has exceeded its authority in ordering the City Council to restore funding for the positions of health director and public health nurse,” wrote Reich. “In my opinion, while the Board of Health has general authority to abate nuisances, it does not have authority over the budget process.”

Councilors in late June trimmed Health Director Brian LaGrasse’s $73,149 annual salary to $1 and reduced public health nurse Amy Ewing’s work week from 35 to 20 hours to save $25,000.

In his cease and desist letter, Wrobel wrote that without the funding, the Health Division “is unable to effectively perform the duties and functions required of them” under local and state laws and regulations.

“As a result, the public health of the residents of Methuen is at risk,” Wrobel wrote.

But Reich disagreed in his memo to councilors, noting that their decision to cut the positions “does not, in my opinion, constitute a nuisance, source of filth, or cause of sickness” as outlined under the state law governing local health boards.

”The enforcement order issued by the Board of Health, would, in my opinion, constitute an improper interference with the lawful exercise of the City Council’s authority under the (city) charter,” wrote Reich. “Therefore, in my opinion, the Board of Health lacks the authority to issue an order to the City Council with regard to matters of funding.”

On Friday, Wrobel said the City Council never responded to their cease and desist order or forwarded Reich’s memo to health board members. “It’s really unfortunate,” said Wrobel. “We should be on the same page. ... The Board of Health will not be used as a political football.”

City Council Chairman Sean Fountain fired back, stating that the health board has “no jurisdiction over the City Council.”

”That was the end of it, as far as I’m concerned,” said Fountain.

At a meeting earlier this month, health board members said they will consider filing a court injunction in an effort to reverse the budget cuts. But several board members said they’d rather have a sit-down meeting with councilors first to get answers.

Prospects for that meeting are looking bleak, however.

”I haven’t heard anything from them,” said Fountain. “The City Council isn’t answerable to an appointed Board of Health member. I have no intention to meet with them, not unless there’s health issues to address in the city.”

Fountain also questioned the merits of solving the matter through the courts.

”I don’t know what legal action an appointed board can take against the City Council,” said Fountain. “That, to me, doesn’t make any sense. There was nothing against the law done by the council.”