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A contentious year for Framingham's Board of Health

By Dan McDonald | MetroWest Daily News

FRAMINGHAM — By almost any estimation, 2009 was a year of newfound zeal for the Board of Health. .

The board haggled with the owner of perhaps the most historic farm in town, briefly shut down a string of popular Rte. 30 restaurants because of a rodent infestation, kept a steady eye on the General Chemical clean-up, and chimed in on industry giant Partners HealthCare's plans to open up a $17.5 million outpatient center on Rte. 30.

The board also ruffled its share of feathers at town hall.

A lot can fit under the umbrella of protecting public health, says Board of Health Chairman Mike Hugo, to whom many point as a catalyst.

Hugo, a five-year veteran of the board, is an attorney who has an office on Newbury Street in Boston and earns a good chunk of his living in his words "suing drug companies."

Hugo estimates that he spends about 25 hours each week on Board of Health business. Selectmen appoint him, like all Board of Health members, to his unpaid position.

Hugo constantly thinks in terms of potential worst-case scenarios. To him, everything is suspect, even federal and state health regulations.

Hugo, however, cites the hiring of Public Health Director Ethan Mascoop as the event that has energized the board and the Public Health Department.

"The increase in activity coincides with Ethan being here," said Hugo. "There were many, many things going on in this town. Many issues were (not being addressed). They were not really being looked at."

Before Mascoop arrived a little more than a year ago, Lisa Mespelli acted as interim head of the department for a little over a year. Before that, Bob Cooper served in the role for more than three decades.

Mascoop previously worked as a Boston-based consultant, has public health experience in Somerville and Weston and worked as an archaeologist in the Middle East at one time.

Mascoop, who oversees a department budget of $542,000 and a paid staff of seven, keeps a wall of shame in his second-floor Memorial Building office of particularly egregious health violations.

"I think there are a lot of challenges in town, and there's an opportunity for the Board of Health to do a lot of good. I really believe that," said Mascoop.

Not everyone has been impressed with the board's vigor, though.

Eastleigh Farms owner Doug Stephan, with a goal of keeping the farm financially viable, wanted to sell raw milk, something that more than two dozen other farms already do in the state.

When his idea went before the board in November and December, board members were so vigorous in their vetting of Stephan that members of Town Meeting Precinct 1 met and voted to implore the board to take a step back from its scrutiny, since the state already had regulations in place.

Kathy Vassar, a Town Meeting member from that precinct, communicated that group's thoughts at a hearing on Dec. 16.

At an earlier meeting on Nov. 24, Winton Pitkoff, Massachusetts Raw Milk Network Coordinator, said the board's hearings constituted the most robust examination of the raw milk issue he had ever seen undertaken by a municipality.

But state regulations were apparently not good enough for the Board of Health, which ultimately gave the go-ahead for Stephan's raw milk operation. Hugo has criticized the state regulations as some of the "lightest" in the nation and is in the midst of drafting the Framingham-specific rules with regard to the sale of raw milk.

"For many, many years I think the Board of Health did not get involved in issues in which they could have and now maybe it's swung a little in the other direction," said Vassar."I think they're finding their way."

Stephan's farm was not the only time the board had been asked to step back.

At a Dec. 9 Zoning Board of Appeals hearing on a proposal to erect a cell phone antenna on Winch Street, Hugo warned about the potential risks associated with antennas, giving examples of people living near them who are at a higher risk for cancer.

That rankled some on the ZBA, as some board members "raised objections" to Hugo presenting such information at such late a date, according to draft minutes of the meeting. Some thought Hugo was essentially stirring paranoia and created "an atmosphere of fear," according to the minutes.

ZBA member Sue Craighead said that all boards should offer comments on projects at a stage in the process that gives the applicant - in this case T-Mobile - time to respond.

"What's different about our board, that I'm not so sure everyone understands, is that we're a quasi-judicial board. We need to make sure everybody is getting an appropriate process," said Craighead.

Craighead added that the board is bound by law, which allows cell phone towers and the installation of cell phone antennas.

Right now, Hugo concedes, the federal government "has determined that cell towers are safe, therefore they don't want anyone talking about them."

But he says he wanted the ZBA to be aware that there are health concerns about them.

Hugo acknowledged, "I know we're not allowed to prevent cell towers from going in on public health grounds."

Board member Nelson Goldin, a medical technologist, has been on the board for seven years and insists the board, "has not tackled anything we're not supposed to tackle."

Goldin did allow, "If there was more communication across board lines, things would go a lot more smoothly."

Ironically, it was communication, or lack thereof, that drew the criticism of the board from one selectman in September.

On Sept. 29, Selectman Dennis Giombetti stressed to Hugo that the Board of Health has an obligation to keep selectmen, which is the Board of Health's appointing authority, tuned in to its activities.

Giombetti said his board "deserved better communication," according to draft minutes from that meeting. Giombetti said he does not want to first learn about major initiatives or happenings by reading the newspaper.

In terms of that exchange, Hugo said, "Dennis is absolutely right."

"In some towns the board is appointed by selectmen and selectmen feel like 'we appoint them so we can tell them what to do,' and then everything becomes a political circus. It's not like that here. Our Board of Selectmen have been extremely supportive."

Dr. Tammy Harris, the third member of the Board of Health, could not be reached for comment for this story.

(Dan McDonald can be reached at 508-626-4416 or [email protected])


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