One of the first major recommendations made by City Manager Edward M. Augustus Jr. when he became Worcester’s chief executive in 2014, was to reorganize the city’s public health functions and change the Board of Health from an advisory board to a regulatory one.
It gave the board the power to deal with all local public health issues, effectively cutting the City Council out of the equation.
The move was hailed by its supporters because they said it would remove the politics that had prevented the city from effectively addressing public health issues in the past.
Since the Board of Health was reconstituted and given greater powers, it has indeed done many good things and taken on many difficult public health issues. What made the board so effective was that its members worked so well together and with public health officials.
But that has all changed in recent months.
There are those who feel the Board of Health has become one of the more dysfunctional boards in the city government, in part because of politics that has come into play on it.
Last week, four of the five board members voted “no confidence” in their chairperson, contending that Edith Claros has been openly hostile and disrespectful to them in that role.
The no-confidence vote stems from a meeting last month when board members said Claros cut off previous board discussions about police brutality and institutional racism in the Police Department, while allowing police officials to speak without interruption.
Some members even went so far to say the board cannot do its job because of Claros’ “open hostility” to some members and her general “lack of support to the board.”
At the board’s September meeting board member David Fort went so far as to ask Claros to step down as chair because of that.
Claros, meanwhile, last week accused her colleagues of “ganging up” and “bullying” her just because she does not share their opinions on racism issues in the Police Department.
She called the no-confidence motion a personal attack, adding she feels disrespected by some of her colleagues.
Claros urged her colleagues to work together on public health issues before the board rather than trying to divide it. But it seems her colleagues are not willing to put what happened behind them.
It was the first time in recent memory at City Hall that any board or commission expressed no confidence in its chair and even went so far to call for the chair to step down.
While most board members want to see changes made in the Police Department to address issues of police brutality, institutional racism and systemic bias, the city manager has made it clear that the Board of Health has no jurisdiction over Police Department policies and procedures.
“The city has multiple boards and commissions with committed volunteer members who conduct essential business across our organization,” Augustus said in a statement. “I understand and fully appreciate that board members may have differing opinions.
“Those opinions need to be expressed in ways that respect those differences, which ultimately will create more dialogue and better policies,” he added. “It is important for the Board of Health to focus on the specific strategies and solutions to the critical public health issues our community is facing, including the ongoing effects of the global pandemic.”
Meanwhile, city councilors have seen what has been going on with the Board of Health and do not like it. At least one councilor has even expressed buyer’s remorse for voting to give the board the greater powers it now has.
Councilor-at-Large Gary Rosen was one of the nine councilors who voted in 2014 to give the Board of Health greater powers. Former Councilors Michael T. Gaffney and Konstantina B. Lukes opposed it, saying they did not want to see the council turn over any of its powers to an appointed board that is not accountable to the voters.
Rosen now calls it “the worst vote I ever took.”
“It was a mistake by that City Council, and we should not have done it,” Rosen said. “Just look at the problems with that board today and our hands are tied. I think it was a mistake; we were sincere in our effort, but we made a mistake.”
Meanwhile, Councilor-at-Large Khrystian E. King said he rejects the narrative that the Board of Health has become dysfunctional and overly political.
“The Board of Health has saved lives this year,” King said in reference to its work related to the COVID-19 pandemic. “I don’t see this as a problem whatsoever. These people are doing their job to make sure public health matters in Worcester are addressed. But this narrative that is going around, I can’t sit with it.”
There are those who wonder why Board of Health members have refused to let the police issue go even though it apparently has no jurisdiction over police policies and procedures. The main reason is that addressing racism is part of the city’s Community Health Improvement Plan, which is overseen by the board.
Board member Fort believes that racism is a critical public health issue, having witnessed instances of it firsthand. A few months ago, he recalled personal instances in which he and members of his family were racially profiled by police. One time, he said, a police officer pulled a gun on him while his white friends watched in horror.
Fort, who is Black, said he is not anti-police, adding there are many good police officers in Worcester. But he also feels there are some who “undervalue Black and brown lives.”
With all that has gone on with the Board of Health of late, it has made several city councilors reluctant now about ceding more of its responsibilities to another volunteer board or commission.
Last week, several city councilors expressed reservations about the proposed creation of a new city entity – the Worcester Ballpark Authority – to oversee the operations of Polar Park, citing the Board of Health as an example.
Councilor-at-Large Donna Colorio said she has concerns about creating an executive board that would have newfound duties and powers, but not have the kind of accountability to the public that city councilors have.
“These people are not elected individuals and there is no recourse if they’re not going to follow through and do what they have to do as part of this board,” she said “It just doesn’t sit right with me.”
For better or worse, the recent happenings on the Board of Health appear to have caught the attention of city councilors in more ways than one.
Contact Nick Kotsopoulos at [email protected] Follow him on Twitter @NCKotsopoulos