The New Jersey Department of Health is looking into whether the structure of the Paterson Health Department is in compliance with state health law. This comes two weeks after councilman Michael Jackson asserted the current structure of the health department does not conform with state laws and regulations.
Donna Leusner, spokeswoman for the New Jersey Department of Health, said the issue has been referred to the Office of Local Public Health for “investigation” and “follow-up.”
Jackson has said the city council is failing to meet its responsibilities as the board of health. He repeated his concerns on Tuesday night. Michael Richmond, attorney for the New Jersey Local Boards of Health Association, and John Segreto, attorney for health officer Paul Persaud, agree with Jackson.
Richmond said under state law, the city council which is the board of health, has to hold an annual meeting to register with the Office of Local Health. In that meeting, the board has to submit an annual public health budget, a schedule of board of health meetings, and other information to the state.
“The council has to meet at least once a year,” said Richmond. The council has not held meetings as a board of health for decades, according to city officials.
The city has a health committee that periodically meets to carry out some of the functions of the board of health. “That group is not sufficient under the law to enact health ordinances and it doesn’t involve every council member,” said Richmond. He said the board adopts codes for dealing with sanitation, rubbish, and food inspection. “The entire council meeting as board of health can do that,” he said.
Councilman Andre Sayegh, who is the chairman of health committee, said his committee met last month.
Segreto in a letter to council members dated April 21st, 2017 argues every municipality with more than 80,000 people is required by state law to have a functional board of health. “It appears that the City of Paterson currently does not have a functioning Board of Health,” read his letter.
Without a functioning board of health, the health officer at present answers to health director Donna Nelson-Ivy. Segreto argues the health officer, under state law, answers to the board of health.
The director has been “unlawfully interfering” with Persaud’s statutory duty as health officer, says the letter. She has subjected the health officer to “severe and pervasive hostile work environment,” he alleges.
Nelson-Ivy said she has yet to see the letter on Tuesday night.
“Paterson’s current structure, whereby Dr. Persaud reports to director Nelson-Ivy, who is not a licensed health officer, and then she determines what will or will not be done by the Health Department is totally incongruous with the statute,” Segreto letter says.
Segreto says the director has been blocking “beneficial programs and public health initiatives” pushed by the health officer. She also has been advising the council on health matters. Nelson-Ivy this week advised the council on noise pollution that has been negatively impacting public health in the city. His letter states she also demands to know planned inspection sites when the health officer plans to conduct enforcement operations.
“All of this is wrong and unlawful,” states Segreto. State law says the health officer is responsible for evaluating health problems of the community, plan activities to meet the health problems of residents, develop budget to cover those activities, direct staff to carry out various functions, according to the letter.
Comparison to police chief and police director
“It’s like the civilian police director telling the sworn police officers what laws they are going to enforce and how they are going to enforce them,” said Richmond. He said some of the blame can be placed on the Faulkner Act which gives Paterson its form of government. The police director and police chief problem was resolved through a court decision that is cited by Segreto in his letter; however, the health director and health officer issue remains unresolved, said Richmond.
The city’s ordinance calls for the director to provide supervision to the health officer. “We’ve delegated to the director the responsibilities to administer those functions,” said council president William McKoy.
Citing a case law example, State v. Board of Health of Morris Township, Segreto asserts the council cannot delegate certain functions to a director who does not have a public health license.
The council president said it’s “far-fetched” to say the city is doing something illegal. The city’s chief lawyer Domenick Stampone has asserted the city is not breaking state law. He appeared to soften his stance a little on Tuesday night when asked about the letter.
“If we are doing something wrong, we will fix it,” said Stampone. He also did not see how the legislative branch can run an entire department. Except, that is exactly what is called for in state health laws, said Richmond.
“In the area of health, you are taking a legislative body, the council, and making it the executive body who is responsible for overseeing the health function of the town,” said Richmond. This shifts the balance of power in favor of the council; to avoid this power struggle between the mayor and council the best option is to have an autonomous board of health, he said.
Danger of not having a functional health board
There are serious dangers to not having a functional board of health, said Richmond. When there’s an outbreak of an Ebola-like disease there are only two entities that can declare a quarantine and isolation.
“One of them is the local board of the health, not the health department. The other one is the state department of the health. Those are the only entities that can quarantine,” said Richmond. “If we ever get into a situation where we have a massive outbreak where quarantine is going to be necessary, legally, Paterson isn’t going to have an entity that can function and declare a quarantine. That’s going to put public health in danger.”
There was very little attention paid to these statutes until the Ebola crisis, said Richmond. He said the local boards have to adopt strategies on ways to deal with quarantine in the event of an Ebola-like crisis.
The board of health also provides those individuals the right to due process through an appeal process. “People that you quarantine should have some rights to get out of it if they are really not sick. You want to have in place rights of individuals to appeal,” said Richmond.
When asked if he thinks the city council has been carrying out its responsibilities as the board of health, the council president replied, “Yes.” He sees the issue about the structure of the health department as a “manufactured” one that stems from a long running squabble between the health officer and the health director.
“If we’re getting a legal opinion that says we have to abide by these guidelines that’s indisputable irrespective of how they feel about each other,” said Sayegh. The council president on Tuesday said the city’s legal department has not issued an opinion on the matter.
Richmond said the New Jersey Department of Health has the authority to order the city to comply with state law.
The health officer’s attorney has meet with mayor Jose “Joey” Torres administration and suggested splitting the city’s health and human services department. He suggested having a separate health department under the health officer who answers to the board of health.