Almost a month after he raised questions about the structure of the municipal health department, councilman Michael Jackson is still waiting on a report from the city’s chief attorney. Jackson on Friday morning said he has yet to receive a report from law director Domenick Stampone.
“We’re not done yet,” Stampone told Jackson on Tuesday night when the councilman renewed his questioning. He said the city’s attorneys are looking into the matter. Stampone has so far dismissed any suggestions the city is failing to comply with a state law that requires every municipality to have a functioning board of health.
“It clearly states you have to have a board of health,” said Jackson on Friday morning. Stampone has argued the city council serves as the Board of Health under the city’s form of government. His argument has been under attack from two attorneys. To serve as the board of health, the council has to hold at least an annual meeting as the board of health, according to Michael Richmond, attorney for the New Jersey Local Boards of Health Association.
John Segreto, attorney for health officer Paul Persaud, has also disagreed with Stampone. “It appears that the City of Paterson currently does not have a functioning Board of Health,” he wrote in a letter to council members.
Richmond said in the required annual meeting the Board of Health submits an annual public health budget, a schedule of local board of health meetings, and other information to the New Jersey Department of Health. The city council has not held such a meeting in decades. Council president William McKoy has said the city has not held such meetings in the past decades and sees no need to do so now. McKoy has said the council has a health committee that carries out the functions of the health board.
The committee is not sufficient to carry out the functions of the health board, according to Richmond. He notes the committee does not have enough members to pass health ordinances.
When contacted about the controversy in late April, 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.” She said the state health department is looking into the matter.
Stampone said when he heard about an investigation he contacted the state health department. “There’s no such investigation,” he told council members on Tuesday night. He said he was assured of this by Shereen Semple, director of the Office of Local Public Health.
Semple did not respond to a call for comment last week.
Leusner last week said the state is looking into the issue after the Paterson Times contacted the New Jersey Department of Health in late April.
Richmond said the New Jersey Health Department has the authority to force the city into compliance. One solution floated to resolve the issue raised by Jackson is to separate the health department from the health and human services department.
Once separated, the health officer would directly answer to the board of health. There has been a simmering conflict between health and human services director Donna Nelson-Ivy and the health officer that may have contributed to the breakout of the current controversy.
Nelson-Ivy was accused of “hostile, disrespectful” treatment of Persaud in a lawsuit the city council settled in October 2014. Nelson-Ivy, who was appointed as director by former mayor Jeffery Jones, was also accused of overlooking Persaud for a promotion. These accusations were hardly unusual under former mayor the Jones administration which was the subject of a number of lawsuits for creating a hostile work environment and overlooking qualified employees for promotions.
Richmond has argued there’s a danger in not having a functioning board of health if there’s an outbreak of an Ebola-like disease. He has said the local board of health and the state department of the health are the two entities that can declare a public health emergency and quarantine people.