Aquinnah officials are looking to address communication concerns between the board of health and other town departments, and are suggesting they participate more in the planning processes of other towns.
During a phone meeting Wednesday, selectmen agreed to extend their emergency order to May 4, to be in compliance with Gov. Charlie Baker’s statewide order.
They also discussed an ongoing issue of poor communication with the board of health and, in particular, from the health assistant Karen Colombo.
Town administrator Jeff Madison said that, although he thinks Colombo has done a “great job” considering the circumstances of her new position and the pressures she faces with the spread of the coronavirus, he thinks she should be in closer contact with the selectmen and other town officials.
When reached by The Times, Colombo said she is not able to make comments on behalf of the board, and added, “I am just a clerical worker. I believe the board has addressed the issue and it has all blown over.”
In an earlier meeting, Madison brought up concerns about members of the public and town officials not being able to reach Colombo on her board of health email.
“Many people have tried to contact her and it just doesn’t work,” Madison said.
Selectman Jim Newman asked if the board can confirm that she is receiving emails at the proper address.
Madison said Colombo is “doing her best” and noted the unfortunate timing in regards to the current pandemic striking right when she assumed her position.
He mentioned an incident where Colombo had put up caution tape on the doors of the town offices at the town hall without notifying either the board of health or selectmen.
“She did something that was really weird last week. I went in there on Sunday and was just so surprised,” Madison said. “I don’t think it was appropriate at all. If it was meant to be a joke, it wasn’t very funny.”
Madison said he doesn’t want to disparage Colombo because of the communication issues, and assured the board that “she is really trying to catch up.”
“Let’s give her a break, she will get there,” Madison said.
Madison said the lack of communication has been an issue for the last month. He noted that Colombo has, to his knowledge, not been participating in other towns’ meetings Islandwide.
“It’s one thing to go out on your own, but you need to participate because it paints the entire community in a bad light,” Madison said.
He also said the town could receive a $5,000 grant from the state in recognition of the need for more board of health involvement “if they participate.”
Jim Glavin, chair of the board of health, said it was news to him that Colombo had put up the caution tape. “I had no idea, I will ask her about it,” Glavin said.
Colombo declined to comment on the incident.
The issue was also raised about an unauthorized email being sent by Colombo to Mike Hugo, an associate member of the Massachusetts Association of Health Boards (MAHB).
When reached by phone, Hugo told The Times the MAHB’s main goal is to serve the needs of boards of health across the state. He said that, with the emergency order, Gov. Charlie Baker authorized the distribution of around $15 million of state funding to go directly to supporting local boards of health.
The MAHB was charged with the duty of distributing some of those funds to Dukes and Nantucket County, he said.
“I developed a nice relationship with some of the health directors on the Island. We submitted the grant, and Aquinnah has sort of distanced itself from the grant. I was unable to reach anyone from their health department,” Hugo said, although he did say he was having ongoing dialogue with Madison.
Eventually, Hugo said he received an email from Colombo, indicating that she was inundated with work, and that she was hired initially as a part-time worker and has recently been working inordinate amounts of hours.
“Karen said she is overworked. I wish she would reach out and take the life ring that other health directors have taken,” Hugo said. “The letter showed a certain amount of frustration to me.”
When asked if Madison had any comment on the matter, he said he did not think it was appropriate to discuss the content of the email.
“It was unauthorized, that’s all I will say,” he said.
Glavin said that it came as a surprise to him, as well. “I am just as embarrassed as the rest of us, it certainly blindsided me,” he said.
When reached by phone, Glavin said Colombo sent an email from her private email address, but said he believes the issue to be “ancient history.”
“I think Karen is doing a fantastic job. She is coming through and really putting in the effort. She has been in touch with all the health agents and is staying in contact with the board of health,” Glavin said.
In the most recent selectmen’s meeting, Newman asked if the selectmen could step in and supersede the role of the board of health. “I think it would behoove us to contact counsel and find out whether or not the town can take over the board of health,” he said.
“No, you certainly cannot,” Madison quickly said, and continued that the board of health is the only governing body that can statutorily enforce many of the restrictions that the town is seeing today.
“Well the other boards of health are communicating with their selectmen, they are attending meetings, Newman said.
Police Chief Randhi Belain said the police are standing by to assist the board of health in enforcing stop-work orders and other emergency restrictions, but said that “if they aren’t in communication with us, it’s pretty hard to assist them.”
“It’s a little embarrassing,” Selectman Juli Vanderhoop said. “We need to get our ducks in a row with the rest of the community. I understand the workload she [Colombo] might be doing, but in times like these, I would find it really offensive for anyone in a public office to be whining about their workload.”