By Jean Perry, Neighb News Correspondent
After nearly a four-hour meeting rife with public dissent and noise interference from a board member’s remote attendance via cellphone while driving a vehicle, the Fairhaven Board of Health on 9/28 voted to fire Health Agent Mary Freire-Kellogg, basing its decision on seven specific reasons that she countered despite interruptions from the board.
Fairhaven Town Counsel Thomas Crotty made a statement explaining that all three BOH members could participate despite two having Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination (MCAD) filings against them. Excluding both chairperson Peter DeTerra and member Michael Ristuccia would mean there was no quorum, so the Rule of Necessity allows them to participate.
Mr. DeTerra started with reason one to fire the health agent: failure to obtain a soil evaluator’s license within 12 months of her hire as stated in the job acceptance letter (not her contract, as he stated]. The license is to perform percolation tests for septic system installations.
“This was in her contract,” said Mr. DeTerra, adding that she failed the test and did not try to take it again.
BOH member Geoff Haworth’s word of the day was “extensive,” as in his extensive research on the history of the personnel matter involving Ms. Freire-Kellogg, and said he could not find evidence of her having the license.
Mr. Ristuccia noted that the previous health agent did hold the license
“And not having obtained that, to me, is an issue,” he said.
The board chose to run through each point before allowing Ms. Freire-Kellogg to speak, but did not allow her the same courtesy.
When she was allowed to speak, she said a previous board that included Mr. DeTerra agreed unanimously in a public meeting that she did not have to retake the test. She offered to play the video of that 4/24/2018 meeting, but the Board refused to allow it.
Several times, members of the pubic spoke out demanding, “Play the video!”
According to Ms. Freire-Kellogg, the board was concerned about the time she would have to take off to take the class, and the expense. She added that having the certification was not a legal requirement in Massachusetts.
In the 2018 meeting, former board member Jeannine Lopes did express that she saw no reason for her to get the license, and Mr. DeTerra commented on how “grueling” the course was when he took it and that only someone performing the perc test would require the license. Former BOH member Michael Silvia also agreed it was not necessary.
“I don’t necessarily need to hear it; my question is, was there a vote taken?” said Mr. Haworth. There was not, she replied.
“So the Board did not officially tell you you did not have to have it by a vote,” said Mr. Haworth.
Ms. Freire-Kellogg said she would prefer to play the tape.
“To me, it won’t help,” said Mr. Haworth.
“I was there, I don’t need to hear … I was there,” said Mr. DeTerra.
Back on his phone while driving, Mr. Ristuccia said: “When she took the job she knew she had to get that license. We can all talk about whether it was necessary or not … but when she took the job she signed the letter saying that she’d get the license….”
Ms. Lopes spoke out: “This is dangerous. Play the video!”
As more members of the public spoke out demanding the video be played, Mr. Haworth instructed the Zoom operator to mute anyone who spoke without permission. At one point several people shouted, “Play the video!” “Bunch of bullies!” Mr. Ristuccia’s vehicle noises drowned out some of the chaos.
Reason two: “You have demonstrated a lack of oversight by allowing personnel to leave at 3:00 p.m. and remain paid until 4:00 p.m. allowing personnel to work without your direction or knowledge, allowing personnel to act without [inaudible] for hours worked,” Mr. DeTerra stumbled over his words as he read.
In his “extensive” research, Mr. Haworth said interim Health Agent Sarah Dupont told him that the employee in question, former administrative assistant Amanda Blais, said she was allowed to leave early.
Mr. Haworth said he also doubted whether Ms. Freire-Kellogg adequately supervised former food inspector Dan Shea, noting that Mr. Shea stated once that he scheduled his inspections “whenever he wanted.”
He said it was important for the health agent to know where all personnel are “at all times.”
Mr. DeTerra said that, as a union worker, Ms. Blais was not allowed to leave early.
He also noted that “during this whole thing I never knew things being on the board.”
“I do not find any of that to be true and accurate,” said Ms. Freire-Kellogg.
She said Ms. Lopes, when she was the chairperson, had approved allowing Ms. Blais go leave 30 minutes early and cut her lunch by 30 minutes, so she could attend college courses. Ms. Freire-Kellogg would cover the office for that time. She said she had emails proving it, of which Mr. Haworth said he did not have copies.
Mr. DeTerra said he was told Ms. Blais would have to go before the union for permission, and Mr. Haworth continued his inquisition into whether Ms. Freire-Kellogg violated the union contract by allowing the employee to leave early.
“Did you consult the union contract?” asked Mr. Haworth. Ms. Frere-Kellogg said she discussed it with the town administrator who approved it also.
“It wasn’t a problem at the time, apparently you see it as a problem,” said Ms. Frere-Kellogg.
Ms. Lopes was not allowed to speak to clarify her role in the decision.
Mr. Ristuccia criticized Ms. Freire-Kellogg’s handling of the matter, although his words were garbled by poor cell service.
As she described a spreadsheet she created to ensure accountability of personnel whereabouts, Mr. Haworth interrupted her to ask about the location and access of said spreadsheet.
“I think there was accountability,” said Ms. Freire-Kellogg. “At any given moment I could check up on where [Mr. Shea] was… She said she did attempt to share the document with Mr. DeTerra via a Google drive but that he did not want it, telling her, “I don’t do computers.”
“Could the board at any time view that sheet?” asked Mr. Haworth.
“Yes, absolutely,” said Ms. Freire-Kellogg.
“…Obviously, the health agent had no idea which places were going to be inspected and when they were going to be inspected,” said Mr. Ristuccia. “To me, that does not show leadership and control over your employees.”
He launched into a diatribe over how he himself would manage employees and said, “Those things weren’t done in my opinion.”
Mr. Haworth questioned how Mr. Shea’s hours could perfectly total 19 hours each week.
“That’s what he worked,” said Ms. Freire-Kellogg. “Nineteen hours, that’s what he was allowed to work; that’s what he was being paid to work.”
Reason three: “You have failed to issue marina permits for most marinas for the 2020 season,” Mr. DeTerra read.
“I just cannot understand why we can allow situations like that to exist,” said Mr. Ristuccia, calling it a “real problem.”
Mr. Haworth said marina permits expired on 12/31 of 2019, and COVID-19 could not have been the reason why the permits were “delayed” and Ms. Freire-Kellogg should have informed the Board that permits would be late.
Ms. Freire-Kellogg said that most marinas are closed from December until June, and they do not file for permits until they are set to open. This year, with COVID-19, marinas remained closed until July 6 and were granted 45 more days to file for their permit, as per the governor’s order.
“Can you hear me?” Mr. Ristuccia interjected having lost contact with the meeting at some point in the discussion. After confirming that permits expired on 12/31 he said he saw no reason for the delay in marina permits: :To say that their business is a seasonal business so they don’t need their permit until they’re physically open…. A lot of that responsibility falls on the health agent, she’s the one that’s in charge.”
Mr. Haworth asked if she told the board of the delay, and Ms. Freire-Kellogg said it was accepted practice to wait until spring, noting that the former health agent did it that way and Mr. DeTerra agreed.
“I never knew nothing,” said Mr. DeTerra.
“The marinas were permitted and inspected in the spring, so why would I inform the Board of a practice that was customary?” she asked.
“We can talk about what’s more important, whether the people have COVID, doing inspections for COVID, would supercede a marina permit, which entails checking the bathroom and checking the trash cans and seeing if there’s a pump-out,” said Ms. Freire-Kellogg. “So, given the option of dealing with COVID or inspecting a marina, I think it would be more prudent to deal with COVID, as did the rest of the world.”
“I want to make sure that the facts are the facts,” said Mr. Haworth. “So to be clear, the Board was not informed.”
Reason four to fire the health agent: You have failed to issue bathing permits for the 2020 season for public beaches.
Mr. Haworth said he found no evidence that the Board was informed that the permits would be late.
Mr. Ristuccia disappeared from the Zoom screen and then returned, saying, “I cannot hear.” This went on for several minutes until the board recessed for 10 minutes to get Mr. Ristuccia back.
From his phone, he said, “This follows everything that I’ve said already. It’s unacceptable behavior, again, not following regulations, not [putting] the public health before our own personal time of being, or whatever, and unacceptable.”
“My goal is accountability in the office,” said Mr. Deterra. “We work for the people of Fairhaven.”
This was common practice for every board of health, said Ms. Freire-Kellogg. Furthermore, there is only one public beach, West Island, and that had been permitted. She said the Town is not obligated to permit other beaches in town, but the ones that were permitted were granted two-year permits, expiring in September 2020.
“When did you inform the Board that they were two-year permits?” asked Mr. Haworth.
“I didn’t,” she replied.
“Thank you,” said Mr. Haworth.
“And that’s not something the Board ever wanted to know as far as I know,” she said, adding she would have happily shared the information.
Reason number five: Demonstrating the inability to work with board members, demonstrating a pattern of failing to follow directives given by the Board, and failure to provide payroll, bills, and other documents to the chairperson for review.
“What I do find is that there has been a pattern of not following directives given by the board that concern me,” Mr. Haworth said. “It just seems like…” He let out a sigh. “In an office environment, in a town environment, I think it’s very important that staff works cohesively. If staff can’t work cohesively, then there has to be changes to the system.”
He lamented that he had never even received a “welcome” from Ms. Freire-Kellogg. “And I didn’t feel that it’s my directive as a board member to reach out to her. She is the paid staff…. The staff at town hall has always reached out to me.”
“I have not received bills, payroll, permits, to sign permits, budget … the last two years and that’s not right,” said Mr. DeTerra.
Ms. Freire-Kellogg said Mr. Ristuccia told her not to talk to the board, and she spoke of the open harassment charges against Mr. DeTerra, who she said was instructed not to communicate with her outside email. She said he broke the agreement several times and that it was a “stressful situation” having Mr. DeTerra as the person in charge of daily operations of the Health Office. She said she still communicated via email but faced discomfort in situations involving septic systems and Mr. DeTerra, as his business is installing septic systems.
“There were a lot of things that I was uncomfortable with,” she said. “I had conversations with Mr. Ristuccia when he came on board, I explained my concern…. He told me that he was going to try and become the chairman so that he could alleviate the situation.”
Still, she did her job, she said, even when she was ordered back to work prematurely during the state of emergency.
“I don’t think that the board was working towards a common goal, I think the board was working toward getting Mary,” she said.
She also noted that the chair sets the agenda, and claimed that Mr. DeTerra once told her, “I decide what’s on the agenda,” she said loudly, “in that tone.”
She said she spoke with many people, even at the state level asking for advice on how to work with Mr. DeTerra.
“So I think that I have done everything that I can possibly do … and what I’ve gotten is retaliation and discrimination,” she said.
Mr. Ristuccia, who appeared physically to the meeting about two-and-a-half hours into it, read from a written statement about how Ms. Freire-Kellogg failed to perform her duties.
“It seems to me that some folks might think we’re picking on Ms. Kellogg, we’re trying to find fault with her; I’m not trying to find fault with anybody,” said Mr. Ristuccia.
Ms. Freire-Kellogg later commented, “It appears to me the board is trying to take my job away and replace me.”
She stated it was false that Mr. DeTerra did not receive payroll, given that he has to sign it weekly in order to issue paychecks.
“The chairman and the chairman alone signs the payroll,” said Ms. Freire-Kellogg.
Mr. DeTerra said he used to get emails, but no more.
“And that is not a true statement,” stated Ms. Freire-Kellogg.
Reason six: “You have failed to communicate in a professional manner with board members,” Mr. DeTerra read.
Mr. Ristuccia said he joined the board with a “very objective view.”
“I kept my mouth quiet and didn’t say much, but did a lot of looking and thinking and investigating and I found that there were roadblocks set almost everywhere I wanted to travel,” said Mr. Ristuccia, adding that her inability to get along with the board trickled down to other employees. “And that’s just something that I can’t tolerate.”
She failed to communicate with Mr. Haworth, “Period,” Mr, Haworth said.
“There’s no professional behavior,” said Mr. DeTerra. “You don’t see bills, you don’t see payroll or … permits, you don’t see a budget, it’s a problem.”
“I communicated in the most professional manner that I could when dealing with somebody that I have a harassment charge against by email,” said Ms. Freire-Kellogg. “That didn’t stop me from doing my work.”
Reason number seven: Ms. Freire-Kellogg keeps chickens on her property without a permit.
“When you’re in charge of a particular area, you should lead the people so that they know what’s necessary, what you expect of them,” said Mr. Ristuccia. “When you can’t even follow the rules yourself, how can you expect other people to follow the rules also? To not get a permit and have chickens on your property knowing that you’re … the one that authorizes the chickens … that is something that should never happen…”
Mr. Haworth said that exemplified Ms. Freire-Kellogg’s unprofessional character, and it “concerns me greatly.”
He also criticized the state of the garage on her property, with its “huge holes” in the doors and “the doors falling off.”
The chickens aren’t a big deal, he said, “The problem is professional character.”
Mr. DeTerra said Ms. Freire-Kellogg needs a permit because her property is not Chapter 61A agricultural property.
According to Ms. Freire-Kellogg, Mr. DeTerra told her that if someone has property over five acres (she said she has 19.2 acres), then a permit for chickens is not required. She added that Chairperson of the Agricultural Commission Kaisa Cripps also told her she did not need a permit.
“I don’t understand why the Board of Health would make a comment in reference to my garage,” said. “You even saying that is yet another form of harassment to me.”
Mr. DeTerra denied having told her she did not need a permit. She said he “absolutely did say it.”
Ms. Freire-Kellogg’s attorney defended her character, expressing the high esteem shared by her peers in New Bedford where she used to work. He referenced the MCAD she filed and the injustice of firing Ms. Freire-Kellogg as an act of retaliation.
“I wish there was some way that Mary … could continue…. I would suggest to you that she would and she will if that can be accomplished, and it’s not just for her, but it’s because of her ethic, her work ethic, but her need to do her job…. Mary Freire-Kellogg is a credit, is an absolute credit to this town. The town would be well served to try to keep her in her work.”
At that point, Cheryl Sbarra, executive director and attorney for the Massachusetts Association of Health Boards, asked to speak but was denied because, as Mr. Haworth put it, the public does not have all the facts that the board does.
Mr. Haworth also alluded, more than once, to unnamed problems that informed his decision, but that he said he could not discuss in detail due to legal restrictions.
After some closing remarks from the Board, Ms. Freire-Kellogg was terminated via a 2-0 vote, with Mr. DeTerra abstaining.
Nothing personal, said Mr. Haworth. “I just think that maybe it’s a good time for us to part ways with Ms. Kellogg … and the board move forward.”
In a follow-up conversation with Ms. Sbarra, she expressed what she would have said if allowed.
“I just wanted to tell them that, from my experience with [Ms. Freire-Kellogg] … I have seen her at numerous trainings. She is an engaged, experienced health director. I think that should have been considered when they were talking about her…
“This is about public health, especially today,” she continued. “It’s just a shame to see a town that can’t see the forest for the trees.”
In actual public health matters, there were 10 new positive COVID-19 cases within the last two weeks, bringing the year’s total to 270. Despite the noise from Mr. Ristuccia’s car as he phoned in to the meeting while driving, Ms. Dupont was able to announce that there is a COVID-19 survey for residents to fill out on the Town’s website.
Around this time, Fairhaven resident Diane Hahn interrupted the meeting to scold the BOH members for their behavior, saying, “I would like you to stop acting like a bunch sof fifth graders…. The bullying and harassment needs to end….”
The board tried to proceed with its approval of a septic plan at 16 Wilburs Point Drive, but Ms. Hahn continued.
“You need to be accountable for your actions like you had stated…. Not bullying and not having large gatherings,” she said. “Grow up, boys! [Mr. Haworth] I’ve known you for 21 years and I’ve known [Mr. DeTerra] for at least 15 and I’m embarrassed by both of you.”
“You’re not acting very professional right now, ma’am,” Mr. Ristuccia said holding his phone while driving.
“I don’t have to act professional, I’m not on the board, you guys are!” said Ms. Hahn.
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