Jean Perry, Neighb News Correspondent
The state has lifted its capacity restrictions on restaurants as COVID-19 cases decline and more of the population is vaccinated, and the Fairhaven Selectboard has for a month now opened up its meetings to the public to the maximum extent possible while keeping social distancing protocols intact. So when a resident approached newly elected Board of Health member Kevin Gallagher outside the meeting room and told him Chairperson Peter DeTerra had just denied her entry to the board’s 4/14/21 meeting, Mr. Gallagher’s first question as a new board member was about public access.
Mr. Gallagher said he was under the assumption that given the precedent set by the Selectboard and the guidelines Health Agent David Flaherty provided the Selectboard on 4/12 to safely reopen meetings to the public, the BOH would also allow the public to attend its meetings by following the same safety measures.
Diane Hahn, who had been sitting in the hallway with her sign calling for a recall of Mr. DeTerra and BOH member Michael Ristuccia, told the Neighb News that she attempted to enter the meeting room to attend the meeting when Mr. DeTerra physically blocked her from entering and shut and locked the door (see letter on page 22). Ms. Hahn says the two men should be removed from office for “dismantling our experienced Health Department during a global pandemic” and for Mr. DeTerra’s hosting of a 100-plus guest wedding last year at his private property in violation of the state’s COVID-19 restrictions on private gatherings.
“Due to COVID-19, I don’t feel comfortable having people in the meeting,” Mr. DeTerra told Mr. Gallagher. The public should only be allowed to attend via Zoom, he said.
Mr. Ristuccia agreed, saying the restriction should remain in place until more of the population is vaccinated and positive cases decline; however, he added, the board should regularly consider its restriction and consider “the feeling in the air, the flavor,” and the community’s COVID-19 status.
The state has now designated Fairhaven as “yellow” in terms of the spread of the coronavirus.
“I think, to have the public come just to have the public come, I don’t think it’s correct,” said Mr. Ristuccia. “I don’t think it’s the right thing to do.”
This led Mr. Gallagher to ask, “Then, would the board inform the [Selectboard] that they’re wrong?”
Yes, said Mr. Ristuccia, saying, “As the Board of Health, it’s our duty to let the Selectboard know that we feel it’s not a good policy… It doesn’t follow what we would consider good protocol to allow the public into their meetings. I don’t think that they should be coming into their meetings… Maybe we should ask that a letter be written to the chair of the Selectboard.”
Mr. DeTerra said he still had not received a COVID-19 vaccine, “So I’m still a little bit nervous.”
“It’s not safe yet to have people mingling … especially in the Town Hall [and] to ask people to come and gather,” said Mr. Ristuccia.
Mr. Gallagher then mentioned the idea that Selectboard member Keith Silvia brought up for discussion before his board about providing for a public comment period at the end of each meeting to allow the public to voice any concerns. The BOH will add the matter to its next agenda for discussion and a possible vote.
Moving on to the annual reorganization of the board, Mr. Gallagher asked the board to first pause and address the enduring precedent of individuals serving as the chairperson of multiple boards. He said while his concern is not aimed at anyone specific, anyone who serves as the chair of more than one quasi-judicial board now and then “gets two bites at the apple,” and the practice “concentrates influence in that one person.”
Mr. DeTerra has often served as chairperson of both the BOH and the Zoning Board of Appeals simultaneously over the past decade.
Mr. Gallagher asked the board to consider what he said and perhaps wait until the next meeting before reorganizing, but Mr. Ristuccia said he disagreed with Mr. Gallagher and that the most qualified chair should always be selected regardless of whether they act as chair for other boards.
That way, Mr. Ristuccia said, “The people who we work for, they’re going to get their best money’s worth by having the most qualified guy running the show.”
Still, said Mr. Gallagher, presiding over a meeting does not necessarily require an extensive amount of tenure on the board. For example, he said, Mr. Ristuccia, as vice-chairperson of the BOH, was able to fill in when Mr. DeTerra was absent, and he did an “admirable job.” Turning to Mr. DeTerra, Mr. Gallagher asked if it was Mr. DeTerra’s intention that day to accept the nomination for another year as chair and asked the board to “pump the brakes” and hold off until the next meeting.
Without hesitation, Mr. DeTerra called for the reorganization of the board and nominated Mr. Ristuccia as chair, which Mr. Gallagher seconded, and it passed unanimously. Mr. DeTerra then asked to be vice-chair, and Mr. Gallagher responded by nominating Mr. DeTerra, seconded by Mr. Ristuccia.
In other business, the board is considering updating its local tobacco regulations to expand its flavored tobacco products ban to include flavored rolling papers.
Children will use anything flavored to make the consumption of tobacco and nicotine products smoother, said Mr. Flaherty.
Mr. Ristuccia said he hoped the public would reach out to the board with its comments and concerns ahead of drafting any regulation changes.
“This is an area where we’re really going to… ask to infringe on people’s freedoms a lot here,” he said. “We’re public servants here… This is a matter of choice, this one.”
Proposed amendments also include increasing fines for retailer violations to align the amounts more with the state’s fine schedule, which imposes significantly higher fines than Fairhaven. For example, the state’s fines for a first, second, and third offense for selling tobacco products to an underage consumer are $1,000, $2,000, and $5,000, respectively. The fines in Fairhaven are $100, $200, and $300.
The board listed the tobacco regulations changes on its agenda as a public hearing and continued it until the next meeting when it will discuss the matter again; however, once the board agrees on a draft of the amendments, it must duly advertise the proposed amendments for two weeks before holding a public hearing to adopt the changes.
In COVID-19 matters, Fairhaven had 56 active cases over the prior two-week period, totaling 1,884 since the onset of the pandemic. The positivity rate went down slightly from 4.07% to 3.92%, prompting Mr. Flaherty to say, “We’re doing better than I expected.”
Mr. Gallagher also commented on the vaccination rate in town, about 25% fully vaccinated, then focused on the disparity in the gender of those vaccinated. In a town of 51% male and 49% female, Mr. Gallagher said he couldn’t help but notice that 62% of those vaccinated were female, with 38% of them male. He wondered if some outreach the board could provide would encourage more males to get the vaccine.
Mr. Ristuccia said his own “personal adventure” in getting vaccinated might help shed light on why more women than men are getting the shot. Making a vaccine appointment requires diligence and “stick-to-itiveness,” he said, something he had to rely on his daughter and wife for in securing him a vaccine appointment.
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