After the New Jersey Department of Health in an audit found the Paterson Health Department failed to comply with state law for not having a functional board of health, council president Ruby Cotton last week called for the council, which is also the board of health in the city’s form of government, to convene health meetings.
“We will call a separate meeting,” said Cotton. She directed city clerk Sonia Gordon to identify dates to schedule separate meetings as the board of health. The state recommends the city hold four meetings a year.
There is more to it than just convening separate meetings to address the areas identified as deficient in the state’s audit of the Paterson Health Department. For example, the audit calls on the city to change the organizational structure of the health department, so that the health officer reports not to the mayor’s appointed director, but to the board of health.
State audit says the health officer has to have access to the board of health. This also means personnel recommendations are made by the health officer and approved by the board of health. At present, the health officer makes personnel recommendations which are then approved by the administration.
Law director Domenick Stampone sees the arrangement where the council votes on personnel decisions as contrary to the law that sets up the city’s form of government. The city is organized under the mayor-council plan or “strong mayor” form of government outlined in the Faulkner Act. “That would be a very unique exception,” he said.
Stampone sought guidance from the state. “They are very vague about it,” he said. “I don’t think they are very well-versed in our form of government.” At one point in his conversation with a representative of the state, he was told, “Why don’t you speak to your city attorney.”
“Whatever they want us to do, we’ll do, but there has not been guidance,” Stampone told the council last Tuesday.
Councilman Michael Jackson told Stampone the audit report issued in June is evident in the changes that have to be made. He said the current arrangement, where the council is addressed on health issues by a health director, who does not have a public health license, is not acceptable.
Jackson, without naming health director Donna Nelson-Ivy, pointed to the director’s questionable behavior. For example, she attempted to shield a troubled nonprofit organization, the Well of Hope, by trying to thwart inspectors. She also tried to get the inspectors pulled from the inspection by telling health officer Paul Persaud the Ryan White program inspected the group’s facility.
Nelson-Ivy’s Ryan White program inspection turned out to be non-existent. She also provided statements to council members that were later contradicted by her own emails.
“We have a director that’s not licensed. We should be hearing from the licensed representatives. That’s what the document states,” said Jackson.
The recommended quarterly meetings are being viewed as the first step to resolve the shortcomings identified in the state’s audit report.
“We have an obligation and we’re not fulfilling that obligation,” said Jackson.