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Should health board be elected?

Opinions divided on best course

June 14, 2010
SOUTHBRIDGE — The town isn't the only one trying to navigate through the shoals of deciding what its Board of Health should look like in the future.

According to Charter Review Committee Chairman Laurent "Butch" McDonald, his panel is likely to propose an elected, three-person board when it finishes its work in August. There's still some dispute over whether such a change is "administrative" — and therefore able to be approved just by the Town Council — or large enough to require a ballot vote.

At present, the charter says the BOH has three members, but the bylaw says five. In practice, it currently has four — one recently resigned — and another plans to depart when his term ends June 30. The Town Council has asked attorney Robert Caprera to opine on whether the previous town manager was right to expand the board to five members; until then, it's postponing new appointments to fill those seats.

Town Councilor Denise Clemence, whose Education & Human Services subcommittee recently discussed that issue, is in the pro-appointment camp.

"You want to put in strong people either way, so they'll use their convictions to do the right thing," she said. "Ö I'm very nervous, with the atmosphere we're in, people may not be willing to go through the election process, but might go through the appointment process."

If the idea becomes reality, however, Southbridge will join the majority of Bay State towns that elect such boards.

Under state law, the requirements for town health boards are somewhat vague, but city boards are more clearly defined — they're supposed to be appointed, with three members, one of whom must be a doctor. Southbridge is a hybrid. It has a city form of government (manager/council), but obtained legislative approval to be bound by the laws that apply to towns when they conflict with those governing cities. What that means in this case is unclear.

"When town government functions well, it shouldn't theoretically make a difference whatsoever" whether they're elected or appointed, said Marcia Benes, executive director of the Mass. Association of Health Boards. "But that doesn't often happen. We all know there are conflicts of interest evident at every level of government."

See Wednesday's Southbridge Evening News for complete coverage of community news.

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