Boston's Board of Health is under fire from city councilors. Here's why. - freetxp

Boston’s Board of Health is under fire from city councilors. Here’s why.

Politics

“They need to be called out.”

Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff

Boston City Hall.

Some Boston city councilors allege the city’s Board of Health has fallen short of its responsibilities, particularly in the earliest days of the COVID-19 pandemic, and are now calling to reform the board through a proposal seeking to require the group to meet more frequently.

Filed by Councilor Erin Murphy on Wednesday, the home rule petition, if approved by city officials and state lawmakers, would require the seven-member board to meet at least once monthly and, at minimum, once weekly during a state of emergency.

By contrast, the board regularly meets once every two months, and has met 14 times within the last two years during the pandemic, the filing states.

According to the Boston Public Health Commission, the board met twice at the onset of the crisis in March 2020, once in June, and again in July, September, October, and November that year.

“The folks that are, I guess, responsible for overseeing decisions in that realm didn’t see fit to meet more often than every other month,” said Councilor Michael Flaherty. “It was incredulous to me.”

The filing comes as Murphy and several other councilors have lately scrutinized the city’s decisions, especially those involving mask and vaccine mandates, during the COVID crisis.

Councilor Frank Baker, on Wednesday, alleged the board skirted state law.

Under Massachusetts General Laws Chapter 111, Section 30, boards of health may appoint directors of public health to act for them “in cases of emergency.” But the director must “in each case within two days report his action to the board for its approval.”

The city’s emergency declaration on March 15, 2020, shifted authority to the then-interim executive director, Rita Nieves, but did not mention the component of state law that requires board votes in decision-making.

Baker, who has recently become an ardent critic of Mayor Michelle Wu’s public health policies, said the Board of Health didn’t vote after Wu announced the mask and proof of vaccination mandates in December.

“They did an end around on the board. The board wasn’t involved is what I’m getting at,” Baker said. “… This was a decision that was made on the 20th and should have at least had some action by our board if we were going deeper into an emergency situation.”

However, Councilor Kenzie Bok noted Boston’s Board of Health operates under a separate law, and therefore the city is not beholden to that section of state law requiring a vote after decisions are made by a director. (Murphy’s home rule petition, in fact, seeks to amend the law that applies to the city, a 1995 act that formed the BPHC.)

A city spokesperson, in a statement to Boston.com on Thursday, said officials have followed state law as it applies to City Hall.

“The emergency orders issued in response to the COVID-19 pandemic were issued under the authority established under the Boston Public Health Commission’s Declaration of a Public Health Emergency Relative to COVID-19 in the City of Boston and were consistent with the framework of state laws The governing duties of local public health departments in the context of an infectious disease pandemic,” the spokesperson said.

Jon Latino, a spokesperson for BPHC, confirmed the board met eight times in 2020.

The number of board meetings is set by the board’s bylaws, which dictate the group must hold six meetings per year, although members can add additional meetings at any time.

“Since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Board of Health has provided valued and ongoing supervision and guidance to the Boston Public Health Commission,” Latino wrote in an email.

Still, some councilors said the Board of Health must face more accountability.

Flaherty said he understands members of the board are qualified and knowledgable health professionals who were busy, outside of their work on the board, serving Boston in a myriad of difficult ways at the onset of the health crisis.

But as members of a public body, they have a certain responsibility Flaherty believes they failed to fulfill.

The councilor at-large said he “can’t even describe the frustration and the anger I have.” At one point in his remarks, he recalled how one top city health official was working remotely from Hawaii for at least part of the pandemic.

“I think they mailed it in, and I think they need to be called out,” Flaherty said of the board.

Councilor Ricardo Arroyo and Bok both cautioned their colleagues to make sure the board is not politicized to the detriment of its work.

The pair also defended the board’s work over the last two years.

“I’m all for accountability. Nobody’s above accountability or oversight, but I do want to make sure we do not politicize the Boston Public Health Commission or the Boston Public Health Board, whose focus should be on the health and wellness of our communities,” Arroyo said.

Leave a Comment