Tensions Boil Over at Board of Health Meeting
On Monday, August 7, 2023, the Board of Health (BOH) held a hybrid meeting with the board’s three members – Joanne Miller, Tom McMahon, and Chair Helaine Hazlett – in attendance. This meeting was McMahon’s second following his election in June to fill the seat vacated by Todd Belfbecker. McMahon prevailed in that election against Becker’s father, David Becker.
Although two months have passed since the election, several uncomfortable moments indicated that tensions remain as high as they were during the campaign.
To start the meeting, Hazlett noted there were several things she wished to address, including her desire to put to bed the issue of lacking a facilities sticker on her vehicle. She admitted that she does not have one, but stated that this is because she does not use the transfer station or Devereux Beach, and said she did “not wish to be harassed about this again.” These remarks came on the heels of past discussions in BOH meetings about whether she had used the transfer station without having the $85 sticker affixed to her vehicle.
Hazlett also stated, “I want everyone to realize I conduct the Board of Health’s business at this very table, and not through the press or through social media,” going on to say, “I request that others do the same.”
Hazlett appeared to be responding to recent online discussions pertaining to the BOH and the transfer station. Both during the campaign and following the election, McMahon has taken to Facebook and letters to the editor of various publications to convey his positions, promises, and criticisms, including critiques of the past actions of Hazlett and the board on which he now sits. “I believe every department and board needs to take a closer look at how they are spending money to get these budgets back in order and regain the trust of the residents,” McMahon said in a letter last week to Marblehead Beacon. “I also think the Health Department, for which I am the newest board member of, has played a large role in this lack of trust.” Just days ago, on his Facebook page, McMahon speculated that he might get “pushback” from his two colleagues regarding his position on proposing new ideas for a sorting floor at the transfer station. He also encouraged residents to attend Monday evening’s meeting.
Following Hazlett’s pre-agenda remarks, she announced that it was time to move on to the agenda. At that point, though, Miller weighed in, turning to Hazlett and saying, “Helaine, how many years have you served in public service in Marblehead, if you can help the community understand some of the experience you’ve held working in helping to support and lead our community over the years?” Hazlett then outlined various roles in which she had served over the past forty years, beginning with being “approached and asked” to serve as PTA president of her then-kindergartener’s school, and including serving as president of the Marblehead Counseling Center, as a member of the School Committee, as a Task Force Against Discrimination member, and in many other capacities.
Miller then looked directly at McMahon and said, “I’d like to ask each of us to really make a commitment to move forward with respect for one another.” She turned to Hazlett and added that “the opposite of shame is pride, and I think you’ve got a long tenure that we can all value and appreciate the service that you’ve given this town; I certainly do.” She wrapped up with her hope that the BOH “move forward positively and collaboratively and respectfully.”
McMahon did not mince words in his response. “Helaine, you’re well aware that I caught wind that you sent a horrible email about me to your friends calling me a liar, saying I was belligerent, so trying to shame me in this way…. I stand by everything I say. So don’t play the victim.” He went on to add, “You did some awful things, and I reached out to you, and I tried to squash it and rather than squash it within that email, you attempted to forward my email to someone else – I don’t know if it was Joanne; I don’t know who it was – but you hit “reply” instead, so I got it, and you trashed me more. So if you want to have this level playing field where we respect each other, you’ve got to respect me too.”
Hazlett’s response was that “many of the things you said never occurred.” She then recommended the group “move on.”
Marblehead Beacon reached out after Monday night’s meeting to ask McMahon for a copy of the email exchange, which he provided. The initial email appears to be from Hazlett, shared with “family, friends, and colleagues,” with an attached statement appearing to be from Todd Belfbecker stating, among other things: “Fact: He has no public health – or health – experience,” and “Fact: His behavior at our meetings has been disruptive, disrespectful, and even threatening,” and “His campaign statements to local newspapers are filled with half-truths and even outright lies.”
Marblehead Beacon reached out to Hazlett to ask whether she had any context or comment to share pertaining to the email exchange. Hazlett initially stated she would not comment without seeing any email we were referencing. Once we provided screen shots, she responded by pointing us to two of her statements from the public meeting, including one we shared above, as well as: “The campaign is over and it is time to take care of business and govern.” Hazlett also forwarded a separate email exchange in which she welcomed McMahon to the BOH, and one that she said she inadvertently sent to McMahon, in which she said to the intended recipient, “I received this from Tom. I cannot even reply to his one-sided conversation he had with himself. I guess he isn’t planning to meet with me.”
Hazlett did not say to whom she’d meant to send the email, and did not provide any response to Marblehead Beacon as it relates to the Belfbecker missive, but did ask that we “not take anything out of context.”
Mental Health Taskforce Subcommittee
As the members continued with the agenda, Miller addressed the Mental Health Taskforce subcommittee – on which she serves as chair. She shared that while the group had not set goals in the past six months, a recent meeting was held at the Gerry 5 facilitated by town resident Kirsten Bosworth. Discussion included how to best meet the post-Covid mental health needs of the community, as well as a plan to create strategic priorities and set goals for the next three years. Miller also thanked Dr. Tom Massaro for stepping up as a “very valuable voice in our conversations.” The next Mental HealthTask Force meeting date is yet to be determined but will be held at the end of August, Miller said.
Transfer Station: Updating Technology for Payments
Director of Public Health Andrew Petty next turned to matters surrounding the town’s transfer station, including the potential to transition toward allowing credit card payments as well as cash and checks. This, he suggested, would make it easier for residents wishing to pay electronically while also streamlining the transfer station’s accounting, which currently involves manually transferring written information into electronic spreadsheets.
As it stands, people who wish to dispose of items like air conditioners, mattresses, or televisions must pay in cash or by check at the transfer station’s trailer. Were the town to opt for a service like “Square,” said Petty, it would allow residents to pay for such items online in advance, and would also allow resident stickers to be purchased the same way. As with any comparable service, said Petty, there would be a small fee associated with each transaction, estimated to be 30 cents plus 2.2 to 2.6 percent. Residents would still be able to use a check or cash to avoid such fees, he said. The cost to the town would be approximately $750 for the technology along with $350 to replace the transfer station’s existing broken cash register.
The motion to add Square was approved unanimously.
Transfer Station: Resident Stickers and Potential New Plate-reading Technology
“Who are our users? Who do we want them to be?” These were questions Petty posed vis-à-vis the facilities stickers residents are required to purchase in order to be able to use the transfer station or park at Devereux Beach. These stickers, according to Petty, raised some $390,000 last year in revenue.
McMahon asserted – as he has in the past – that the town is paying to dispose of the refuse of non-residents and residents who come into the dump without a sticker. Additionally, he has stated that because town officials lead by example, it is not ideal to see some of them come in without a sticker. For those who have claimed that they choose to keep their sticker in the glove box, McMahon retorted, “It’s a sticker; it’s supposed to be stuck.”
Petty acknowledged that it would be optimal for residents to have their stickers affixed, as the workers having to check with drivers individually can create unnecessary traffic backups.
McMahon also offered a solution that he suggested could obviate the need for stickers: A scenario in which people purchase their “sticker” virtually, and it would be assigned by license plate. An electronic reader would then generate a notice when someone comes through the transfer station without a registered plate. McMahon stated that he’d seen the demo of an option that would cost the town approximately $1,300 plus modest monthly fees associated with storing the information in the cloud.
With the savings on ease of enforcement and the encouragement of all users to pay, McMahon suggested that the current fee of $85 per sticker could potentially be lowered. Additionally, it was noted that certain elderly or qualifying individuals may apply for an abatement.
When McMahon proposed a motion to investigate Eagle Eye Network or comparable plate-reading services, Hazlett balked, interrupting him with her objections. “Helaine, you’ve got to stop interrupting,” he said. “You want respect from me; you’ve got to give it back.” McMahon opted to move ahead with the motion. Miller gave the motion a second, and ultimately it passed unanimously. Hazlett later said she decided to vote for it in order not to be “obstructionist.”
Respect – Or Lack Thereof – At the Transfer Station
Petty made several statements suggesting that the transfer station’s workers are routinely treated with disrespect. “The employees up there often work six days a week,” Petty said. “People just need to give them respect.” “It really upsets me to hear that that’s not occurring,” said Hazlett, as Petty was mid-sentence. “Understood,” he said, and was cut off by Hazlett again as he started to say, “but we as a community need to treat each other…” She went on, saying, “it starts at this table.” Petty then said, “Correct, and that starts by not interrupting, listening, and making sure that you treat others like you want to be treated. Everyone needs to be paying attention to this. Saying mean things about others is hurtful. This is very basic conversation, but we as a community need to do better.”
Petty’s sentiment was echoed by Miller, who said she wanted to see a “narrative of the transfer station as a tremendous utility to this town, as an asset to this town.” She added that the notion of people treating these employees badly “makes me really upset because everyone there is helpful, with a smile.”
During public comment, resident Steve Elliot expressed his gratitude to the employees of the transfer station, and his extreme disappointment in the nastiness he, too, had witnessed on display by disgruntled customers.
Following Petty’s and Miller’s statements, Hazlett asked about signage being erected coming into town. It appeared she was referring to signs advising people to be nice. Petty stated that he did not think such signs would be necessary, and Miller offered up that the “Marblehead Mental Health Task Force is under the banner of ‘Marblehead Cares.’”
The Marblehead employee flu clinic is planned for Tuesday, September 26, 2023 from 9:00 a.m. to 11:00 a.m. at the Council on Aging. The next BOH meeting will be held on September 12, 2023 at 7:30 p.m.