By Beth David, Editor
The embattled Fairhaven Health Department employees continue to speak out, trying to get their side of the story aired as the Board of Health meetings are increasingly bereft of chances for them to speak.
Health Agent Mary Freire-Kellogg, who is technically still employed in that role but has been on forced paid administrative leave, said from her first week on the job in 2017, there was turmoil. The Administrative Assistant quit, leaving Ms. Freire-Kellogg alone to do both jobs for a few weeks.
Amanda Blais, who recently resigned from her position as AA in the Health Department, said she asked to be re-assigned to another job when she saw a lateral position open up, but was denied that request. She left her post after she realized that Board of Health Chairperson Peter DeTerra was never going to stop “harassing” her.
Daniel Shea, who was, and may still be, the part time health inspector, responsible for inspecting restaurants and other food establishments, said he was blindsided by a letter accusing him of insubordination that was sent by BOH member Michael Ristuccia.
Ms. Freire-Kellogg’s status will probably be discussed at the next BOH meeting, it was continued on 9/10. Ms. Blais has resigned, so she is a “former” employee. Mr. Shea said he is not sure of his status. No one has actually told him anything. He said he was told to stop doing inspections, turned in his iPad, and he has not been given any hours or any inspections to do for several weeks.
In a phone interview, Mr. DeTerra said that the employees simply did not want to be accountable for their actions. He said when he asked normal questions, he was accused of harassment.
In addition to providing documents to back up the many claims the three employees have made over the last few weeks, they also wanted to focus on a couple of conflicts of interest against Mr. DeTerra.
Ms. Freire-Kellogg said her problems with Mr. DeTerra started after just a few months on the job, when Town Administrator Mark Rees told her she had to put out to bid the mowing project for the landfill. Mr. DeTerra had previously mowed the landfill (see Neighb News 9/20/18).
Ms. Freire-Kellogg maintains that she followed proper procedure, and called companies that had bid on the job in the past. She also provided copies of two payments made to Mr. DeTerra in 2017 that showed a much higher amount paint to him for the job than the bid. One company had bid $4,000, and Mr. DeTerra had bid $3710. But then he charged $4695 for weed whacking.
Ms. Freire-Kellogg accused Mr. DeTerra of overcharging.
Mr. DeTerra said the comparison was flawed because the landfill does not have to be weed whacked every year. The Department of Environmental Protection mandates the weed whacking. He said there are swales and stumps on the property and they have to be done by hand.
“So that’s the discrepancy,” he said, adding that he did not get the contract every year.
Mr. DeTerra maintains first and foremost that he follows all ethics rules for any work he does in town that has any connection to the BOH.
Ms. Freire-Kellogg also said Mr. DeTerra, who is an excavator by trade, has an out-of-town inspector inspect the septic systems he installs in Fairhaven.
Mr. DeTerra said it would be inappropriate for Ms. Freire-Kellogg to inspect his work.
“I’m her boss. So I pay the Mattapoisett health agent to do my inspections,” he said, adding that it was only a handful over the years.
Another complaint was that he trained the new interim health agent, Sarah Dupont, on a septic inspection. Mr. DeTerra said he went with Ms. Dupont because she is not licensed and he is.
“I’m licensed for everything for the board,” said Mr. DeTerra, who has been on the BOH for 17 years.
Ms. Blais complained that she suddenly was not allowed to leave early to go to her college classes, something she said she got permission to do.
Mr. DeTerra said she had been leaving for months, and he never knew about it. He said she was not properly logging in and out of work to go.
“I have no problem with school,” said Mr. DeTerra. “But at least ask the board, punch out.”
And so it goes, with a litany of accusations and responses from both sides that would fill volumes. Each side makes a claim that seems to be a legitimate.
Mr. Shea said he was shocked when he received a 1 1/2 page letter accusing him of insubordination. The letter was signed by board member Michael Ristuccia, but Mr. DeTerra said he agreed with it.
At the top of the list of complaints was an incident when Mr. Shea trained Ms. Dupont to take beach water samples. She was required to go into the water up to her waist, or a little higher.
Mr. Shea said that is how he does it and provided documentation that states that the sample needs to be taken in three feet of water, and the bottle needs to go down one foot. I does not specify if a person needs to wade into the water.
Mr. DeTerra laughed and said he was very angry when he learned that Ms. Dupont went into the water.
“There’s a pole in the car, you go in with boots,” he said. “I’m still upset.”
He said a person going into the water is a “contaminant.” The bottles are sterile.
“You’re supposed to put it on a ten foot pole,” he said. “You can’t make someone go out in the water.”
He said he has taken many samples and has not gone into the water or gotten wet to do it.
Ms. Freire-Kellogg said she went in the water to get samples; and in a written response to the complaints, Mr. Shea said he and all the interns also went into the water to get samples.
The final straw with Mr. Shea seemed to be Scramblers. He was yelled at by the owner who also wrote two letters complaining about Mr. Shea. Mr. DeTerra said that Mr. Shea was not supposed to be conducting the inspections at Scramblers because of the conflict with the owner. Mr. Ristuccia was supposed to be doing them, but Mr. Shea returned twice after being told not to.
Mr. Shea said the COVID-based complaints about Scramblers came from the state, as residents had called them into the state’s system.
“There’s a clash between the two,” said Mr. DeTerra. “To diffuse what’s going on, that’s why Mike was handling that. You back up until things calm down.”
There was also conflict with Mr. Shea’s schedule. Ms. Dupont asked him for his week’s inspection schedule, but Mr. Shea said he worked sporadically.
In the complaint letter, it states that Ms. Dupont wanted to shadow Mr. Shea and he said they could do that on Friday, but then proceeded to conduct five inspections alone.
Mr. Shea maintains that the board wanted the schedule to warn the restaurants ahead of time, which compromises the integrity of a surprise inspection.
“We never let people know,” said Mr. DeTerra. “I do not warn people. And Sarah does not warn people either.”
Ms. Freire-Kellogg said she had many ideas for public education when she started the job in 2017. Even amid the turmoil she said that she and her staff did most of it.
They budgeted for organization classes so young people would not grow up to be hoarders; “fix-it clinics” to help people reuse items; got sunscreen dispensers for the beaches; got a grant for the iPad and software for the food inspection program. She said they “beta tested” it, meaning they used a new version, for a break in the rate. It worked out so well with Mr. Shea using the software that the same company asked if they would beta test a housing code program.
The organization classes got scuttled because of COVID, but there were many other educational programs, including the recycling changes, that were carried out.
“We just continued on our path despite everything,” said Ms. Freire-Kellogg. “A huge part of the problem is people don’t understand what the Board of Health is.”
Paul Revere started the first BOH in Boston in 1799. The autonomy was built in from the start to protect the department from political interference, said Ms. Freire-Kellogg.
“But never in Paul Revere’s wildest dreams did he think the public would need to be protected from the Board of Health,” she said.
The autonomy of the board does not mean the town and board members can treat employees shabbily and get away with it. She said they are still town employees, bound by the personnel policies of the town, but so is the town.
All three complained that the town did nothing to protect them.
Town Administrator Mark Rees differed in that assessment, saying he did what he could, and brought in both Town Counsel Thomas Crotty and the town’s labor attorney Jaime Kenny of Clifford & Kenny.
“It’s all in writing,” said Ms. Freire-Kellogg. “They failed to protect us.”
Mr. Rees said the BOH supervises the health agent, so his authority was limited. But when she filed her complaint, he worked with Mr. Crotty to get the counselor in.
“So we did attempt to address the situation,” said Mr. Rees.
He also said when he first got hired as TA he asked if the BOH was interested in signing a memorandum of understanding for him to manage the day-to-day operations of the office, while the BOH would still handle policy, but they “never acted on” it.
“So Mary is wrong when she says I didn’t do anything,” said Mr. Rees. “She’s also wrong when she’s saying I could do anything except work in a mediator/facilitator role.”
All three employees also complained that many false statements were made in public meetings and they were not allowed to defend themselves. They said the work environment was hostile, with Mr. DeTerra, Mr. Ristuccia, and Ms. Dupont, who graduated with a Masters in Public Health in May, hovering over every move they made.
Ms. Freire-Kellogg and Ms. Blais are both filling complaints with the Mass. Commission Against Discrimination (MCAD) this week, alleging gender bias. They said that Mr. Shea only recently started feeling the heat and they believe it is in retaliation for supporting the two women. Mr. Shea and Ms. Blais are in a romantic relationship and live together, but that was never a secret.
So what do they all want now?
“I want the town of Fairhaven to start protecting their employees,” said Ms. Freire-Kellogg. “They failed miserably.”
As for getting her job back, which, technically, she still has.
“I don’t even know,” she said. “They’ve ruined my reputation. They’ve ruined my career. You tell me how a 57-year-old woman looking for a job is going to do?”
She said she needs eight more years before she can retire at full pension.
She said she never threatened a lawsuit, even though board members said so publicly. She hired an attorney because the board refused to tell her the content of meetings.
“I have begged, begged, in writing for the town of Fairhaven to protect us,” she said, adding that she did not think she could work with Mr. DeTerra unless something changed.
She said all they have to do is “follow the rules” in the personnel/ employee handbook.
“You wrote them, follow your own rules,” she said.
“I want my life back. That’s what I want,” said Ms. Freire-Kellogg. “I want peace of mind. Because this shit is all consuming.”
Ms. Blais said she has resigned and is actively looking for a new job.
“Even though I resigned, I want protection for the next person who sits in my chair,” said Ms. Blais. “Peter has a bad habit of being nice at first.”
She said he accused her of all kinds of things that simply were not true, including inappropriate behavior with Mr. Shea during work hours. She said there are ways to ask about those things, but Mr. DeTerra was rude and inappropriate.
“Speak to someone as a human being,” she said.
“I would love to have my job and keep it to retirement,” said Mr. Shea. “But, obviously, I can’t work under the regime in place.”
He said he was “collateral damage” in the feud between Mr. DeTerra and the two women.
“I took the health of the town with great seriousness. I take it to heart,” said Mr. Shea. “We’re not out to get people, we’re out to educate. I’m an educator. My entire life is based around education.”
He said all his inspections were based around educating the establishment, not punishment. Mr. Shea has a Master’s in Public Health and his specialty is epidemiology. He is an Associate Professor & Program Coordinator at Cape Cod Community College.
“My inspections are 100% educational,” said Mr. Shea, so he took it to heart when they said he attacked a business owner.
He said he never closed anyone down, although a few places closed down for a few days to fix issues.
“We have an excellent rapport with the establishments,” said Mr. Shea, adding that he gets texts late at night asking for advice on what to do. “Because they are not afraid to address it. They know we will help them through it.”
He recounted a story or two of being thanked for his helpfulness, “before all this went south.”
‘I want my job, but under no circumstances can I work under these three people,” he said. “And I can’t work under their agenda.”
“I’m scared for the people in town,” said Ms. Freire-Kellogg, noting the priorities of the board as discussed in meetings.
“You will never find three more dedicated employees,” said Ms. Freire-Kellogg. “We were the A team. This town was lucky to have all three of us.”
Mr. DeTerra said that the BOH is his career, too, and that he put a lot of time, work, and money into it, gaining an “immense amount” knowledge. He said Ms. Freire-Kellogg is a “very smart person,” but that she “didn’t like accountability.”
He said he believed she was just not used to a three person board, with three different personalities.
He said he went to the counselor as requested. The counselor said Ms. Freire-Kellogg and Ms. Blais also had to go so they could all “move on.”
“They never moved on,” he said. “They constantly were on me. And I didn’t go in that office for a year and a half and they were still on me.”
In a written statement he sent to another news outlet, Mr. DeTerra said: “This is an unfortunate situation. Public service is a great opportunity. I have enjoyed working for the people of Fairhaven for almost twenty years… I am hopeful that the Health Department will ultimately become stronger and more effective in its service of our community.”
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