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Staff Writer

PEPPERELL — Last month, Board of Health (BOH) members were quite upset by the fact their job posting for a long-sought part-time health agent had not appeared until June 9, a mere week before the cutoff date of June 17.

The issue occurred because the personnel administrator — town administrator Robert Hanson — refused to post the job until he received a job description and that the position is in the town’s pay schedule (according to a June 13 letter to the BOH).

The BOH had approved the job descriptions at its meeting the second week of May.

“I don’t understand how the Personnel Board can dictate who we hire or whether they would cancel (the process),” health board member and attorney Mark Walsh said June 11. “It seems the Board of Health is not in control.”

According to sources, Walsh pushed his question to the attention of labor counsel.

“The Board of Health is beyond the purview of the Board of Selectmen or Personnel Board,” Hanson reported to selectmen at their June 23 meeting. According to Chapter 111, Section 27 of Massachusetts General Law, he said, “they exist on an island unto themselves.”

Hanson’s report was apparently based on a letter received that day from labor counsel Sharon P. Siegel, indicating that state law prevails over any conflicting town bylaw.

The health board is trying to replace the 15-hour-per-week, $27-per-hour food inspector’s position that was vacated early on by its nonresident appointee. The agent was one of two contractors — Title V inspector Kevin Ritchie being the other — hired by the board after a lengthy search to replace the functions done by former health agent/sanitarian Edward Wirtanen, who left in 2007.

Since Wirtanen’s departure, former board members Robert Lambert and Conrad Eaton have been filling in with inspections, as needed.

Hanson’s letter stated he has “cooperated with the board’s personnel actions,” however, “it is my determination that enough is enough and the ‘health agent’ position will not be posted until there is a job description on record, approved by the Personnel Board, and the position is properly slotted on the compensation schedule.”

Hanson indicated his reasons included no receipt of a “legally defined” job description or pay scale, and the town could have a “legal liability” in terms of personnel complaints. He wrote that ” the entire structure of the town’s personnel system could be brought into question.” He added that the position’s funding within an existing budget hinders establishment of the position.

Hanson was overruled by labor counsel.

Siegel determined that since salary money is within the town meeting approved health budget, that board — as independently elected officials — can fill the vacancy despite the hiring freeze ordered by selectmen prior to town meeting.

The BOH has the right to contract with a health agent to execute state health statutes. Members are limited, however to establishing job duties, conditions and salaries.

Financial terms of an employee are subject to appropriation by town meeting, and the BOH cannot set fringe benefits, counsel found.

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