LINDEN, NJ — After Nancy Koblics, Linden’s health officer, retired on Monday, Feb. 1, Mayor Derek Armstead reached out to Gov. Phil Murphy’s office on Wednesday, March 17, to request that the state grant the Linden City Council full authority to run Linden’s Health Department. After a conversation, a letter to the governor’s office and the Linden board of health’s rejection of assistance from FEMA when asked if Linden needed help to set up a vaccination site, Armstead was not satisfied with the state’s negative response. Therefore, as mayor, he has given the Linden City Council full authority to run Linden’s Health Department. As of April, Linden has entered into a shared service agreement with Woodbridge’s Department of Health and Human Services.
In his letter to the governor’s office, Armstead requested that Linden’s Health Department have City Council oversight, although a New Jersey statute prohibits this from occurring. Armstead therefore requested, as the mayor of Linden, that the governor use an executive order to give the Linden City Council the authority to oversee operations of the city’s Health Department until a full-time health officer is hired. As mayor during a global pandemic, Armstead said he believed swift action was required to assure the residents that the Health Department is operating in full compliance with the law and providing the services required.
“We did receive a response from Gov. Murphy’s office,” said Armstead on Monday, April 19. “After discussing our concerns in great length with the office and our dilemma, we explained that many of our board members were being appointed this month, due to recent resignations, and some of our current board members didn’t understand the responsibilities of running the board. At this point, the governor’s office recommended that we go to a website and download the duties and responsibilities of a board member, which we didn’t exactly agree with during this pandemic.”
Linden municipal attorney Dan Antonelli said on Monday, April 19, that, while the city could oversee the Health Department in the short term, statutorily, “The Health Department answers to the local board of health, and that’s the issue. The letter is a request to the governor, which may or may not be entertained.
“The City Council’s goal for the Health Department, like it is for any other department, is to make sure it’s running efficiently, properly and in accordance with the law,” he continued. “Any attempt by the mayor and council to oversee the Health Department would be for a limited duration and until such time as the city retains a health officer.”
“The city of Linden doesn’t have full authority pursuant to N.J.S.A. 26:3-1. The city is required to have a board of health,” Armstead said. “Under the statute, the board of health is an unpaid, autonomous board of health. In other towns, such as Elizabeth, which doesn’t fall under the Wildwood act, the governing body is allowed to act as the board of health.”
“The purpose of the agreement is to provide Linden with a certified health officer until we’re able to hire our own officer,” he continued. “They will be our designated, recognized health agency. The Woodbridge health officer will be the city of Linden’s designated health officer and chief executive officer for all of Linden’s public health services and activities. They will provide technical and professional services to assure the provision of core public health services. The health officer will assess public health needs, plan, organize and implement public health activities.”
Before sharing a service agreement with Woodbridge’s Department of Health and Human Services, Linden entered into a shared service agreement with Elizabeth’s Department of Health and Human Services. But several issues were uncovered, causing an officer from Elizabeth’s Department of Health and Human Services to opt out of the agreement.
“The Elizabeth health officer felt that there were too many operational deficiencies and that he would be putting his license into jeopardy,” Armstead said. “As I mentioned, they’re a voluntary board consisting of civilians. Many of them have no experience in the health field. The current board had recently been constituted, and the majority of the members are new.”
Armstead said his directive that the council immediately take over the city’s Health Department will help tackle this unique circumstance Linden currently faces.
“My administration is no stranger to fixing and resolving problems,” he said. “We’ve advertised for a new health officer. We’re also hiring a consultant to analyze the overall operation, to examine the table of organization and provide recommendations to improve the performance of the daily operations.”
According to a press release addressing this issue, the council will hire an on-call doctor and per-diem nurses to assist the Department of Health. The mayor also reached out to the Linden Board of Education to see if the city can utilize Board of Education nurses when needed. Once the board of health hires a new health officer, the City Council will gradually transfer control to the civilian board, once it has a thorough understanding of board of health duties.
Linden has received two responses to the request for qualifications, which closed on Thursday, April 8; they are being reviewed.
Armstead said his goal is “to have a first-rate and efficiently run board of health that can operate more efficiently.”