Concerns over managing Foxboro’s response to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic are prompting calls to consolidate oversight of the town’s health agencies, at least over the short term.
This proposal, still in the conceptual stages, was triggered by the pending retirement of Health Director Pauline Zajdel, who recently announced she will step down at year’s end.
As outlined to selectmen Tuesday night by Town Manager William Keegan, such a restructuring would leverage knowledge within the fire department command staff — most notably deputy chief Thomas Kenvin, who as EMS coordinator has played a key role in the town’s pandemic response.
Kenvin is a registered nurse near to completing a master’s degree in public health while Fire Chief Michael Kelleher is a registered sanitarian, both qualifications being sought for the health director’s post.
Keegan, who has authority to appoint the town health director, suggested that fire officials could help manage or oversee health department functions while a search for Zajdel’s permanent replacement is ongoing.
It also would serve as an insurance policy in the event the job search is unsuccessful, or takes longer than anticipated, he said.
“The last thing we want to do in the middle of a pandemic is to leave the town not with the department being managed in this type of situation,” Keegan said.
Both Keegan and Assistant Town Manager Michael Johns predicted the health post will be difficult to fill, partly because of competition from other communities now seeking to fill similar vacancies and partly because Foxboro has established a high bar for applicants.
Johns confirmed that Foxboro is requiring a bachelor’s degree (master’s preferred), as well as a registered sanitarian license.
“We’re trying to put Foxboro in an advantageous position to provide the best public health services we possibly can,” he explained.
Starting salary would be from $83,000 to $88,000, depending on experience, Johns added.
Keegan noted that town health inspector John Robertson, one of four employees on the health department staff, has been working on the necessary credentials, but remains unqualified for the director’s job.
Not surprisingly, the proposal has elicited push-back from board of health members. During a terse meeting on Monday, health board Chairman Eric Arvedon contended that other communities seeking to fill similar posts are offering better pay while willing to consider applicants with less experience or education.
“I think we’re at a disadvantage, right off the bat,” Avedon said of Foxboro’s hiring process. “Whether it’s deliberate or not, I don’t know. But I think it’s unnecessary.”
In some cases, under-qualified applicants have been hired for municipal positions with the caveat that they obtain all necessary certifications in a timely fashion, usually one year. But both Keegan and Johns suggested this practice should be avoided as risky and impractical.
Keegan said he understood that some might disagree with the proposal, but maintained the town needs to have a fallback plan in the event the position cannot be filled.
“I want to be clear about this: we’re not looking to eliminate the Board of Health,” Keegan said. “That never was part of the conversation. It’s a question of who’s going to manage the function.”
In addition, health board member Paul Steeves rejected the notion that fire department staff could give proper attention to both jobs.
“You think these guys are going to have the time to run our very busy office on top of their operation?” Steeves rhetorically asked.
Keegan admitted that specific details of any restructuring plan had yet to be worked out.
“We’re not at that point,” he said. “But I think if we get to that point we’re going to have to lay it out and see how it’s going to work.”
Also weighing in remotely at Monday’s meeting was Cheryl Sbarra, executive director for the Mass. Association of Health Boards.
It its mission to support health boards around the state, Sbarra acknowledged the association has advocated for increasing qualifications for public health professionals. Burt she characterized Foxboro’s expectations as a “gold standard” which few communities have attained.
Sbarra also cautioned that only local health boards retain legal authority to enforce public health laws.
“Regardless of what charter Foxboro has or who’s responsible for hiring and firing, the basic fact is none of these laws can be enforced unless that board of health delegates their authority to public health staff,” she asserted. “The thought that a full-time firefighter could do that work is novel — it’s just novel.”
Keegan admitted the concept has been untried, but said it’s worth considering under the circumstances.