Staff Writer

PEPPERELL — “Some people are saying the Board of Health (BOH) is after its employees. It isn’t,” said health board member Myra Cacace. “Ed Wirtanen (former health agent) had gone when this board took office and the secretary took another job soon after.”

Cacace was referring to a growing rumor that town nurse Ellen Castellano — a BOH employee — might be under pressure to leave as the board examines its budget and feels responsibility to fill Wirtanen’s post.

The opposite is true, board members said. However, the board is requesting more detailed work reports from Castellano in an effort to both better understand her responsibilities and to protect itself and Castellano from potential liability.

The nurse is well-known for her outreach efforts and volunteerism, however the alleged rumor mill appeared to have created a pervasive negativity.

Castellano arrived at the meeting accompanied by Town Clerk Lois Libby, Council on Aging Director Sharon Mercurio, Senior Center Outreach Coordinator Joan Goddard, and former health board secretary Lynda Pozerski.

Having been advised the board wanted to discuss job responsibilities, she brought in letters of recommendation she expected would be sufficient to indicate her time spent on the job.

The meeting’s tone was set when Cacace opened the discussion by saying, “I want to go on record that there is no issue in my mind about quality (of service). I do have issues with accountability,” and produced a sample time sheet.

Castellano replied, “I didn’t know there were questions of quality. The letters address the work done, which is accountability to me.”

“It bothers me you feel the need to go out and get all these letters. It tells me something is wrong with our relationship,” said Chairman Virginia Malouin.

Malouin asked about a five-day period in which the mandatory twice-daily temperature of flu vaccine hadn’t been checked. She suggested Board of Health secretary Sandra Grogan could help if Castellano were busy.

Castellano said only she and police have keys to the vaccine storage, as approved by state health officials.

“I have the responsibility for the vaccine not the Board of Health, according to the Department of Public Health,” Castellano said. “You can leave it unchecked that long, as long as it stays cool.”

“What do you do the rest of the day?” Cacace asked, reading the letters. “The reason for the evaluation is to (see) how you’ve made goals, how changes can be made for the future.”

Castellano said she’s never been asked to keep a daily log.

“I have questions,” Cacace continued. “We have to go to budget but we’re told there isn’t enough money. Any guidelines for how many conferences (you go to)? For example I, as a nurse, have two.”

“Just tell me when you want me to go,” Castellano said.

Cacace reminded Castellano she works for the BOH and her records must be shared if someone fills in for her. She added that patients sign releases of acknowledgment, allowing their charts to be reviewed.

That prompted several iterations of an argument in which Castellano said the Massachusetts Nurse’s Association considers patient records confidential and Cacace countered that the Massachusetts Association of Health Boards considers her position permissible.

“There is a need for oversight of records,” Cacace said. “I’m a nurse and have been in the business 30 years. You don’t have to worry about a breach of confidentiality. It’s backup protection for you and the board as well. There’s no telling what people may do, (maybe) accuse you of malpractice. Without oversight, how can I say what you do?”

BOH member Peter Cronin explained the recently-elected board is still trying to figure out how to relate to its employees. When he reminded Castellano that she had been supervised by the still-unreplaced health agent, Castellano said that was not true.

“You should be,” Cronin said. “It’s great everyone is writing letters (on your behalf). We aren’t trying to railroad you or to get rid of you. I hate the tone (in this meeting), it’s so negative. I don’t think anyone’s asking you for a lot, just a little more detail in the log.”

When Cacace said many people ask whether Pepperell has a town nurse and why the Nashoba Associated Boards of Health isn’t used, Castellano replied, “You should have asked me.”

Growing frustrated, Cacace said she has been on the board six months and all that’s been addressed is personnel issues. She said she’s getting “half-answers and no records.”

“And about me not having concrete knowledge to defend the position,” Malouin said.

“Why do you use the word ‘defend’?” Castellano asked.

Cronin said the job could be “gone” because word from town administrator Robert Hanson is that budgets will be tight.

Mercurio said the request for a log is “wasted effort,” having personally seen how Castellano works. She said many mental health clients might close their doors if they knew records would be seen.

“This seems to be a hostile board. I don’t understand it,” Mercurio said.

Goddard said Castellano’s records are supposed to be for herself and the state.

“This is my first board meeting in 15 years and I am very disappointed and sickened watching board members malign someone of great integrity,” Goddard said.

“We (new BOH members) need to learn what’s going on,” Cronin said. “I’m sorry you think this is so abysmal tonight. We all said we’re not trying to take your job. We’re a professional staff and we have a right (to supervise).”

As Goddard explained she was objecting to the “tone” of the questions, Cacace explained the records request is not intended to be minute-by-minute, but added, “I don’t believe I even have to explain this to you.”

Libby said, “We’ve lost some very good people moved people to this unbelievable trailer. This used to be a good board.”

A decision to move the BOH to the Town Hall Annex was made nearly two years ago, after Wirtanen’s request to move Castellano into the board’s then-Town Hall office was rejected for lack of space. The Conservation Commission office was moved from the annex into Town Hall. Castellano maintains a separate office in the annex.