Health Director Benjamin Wood Steps Down for State Job
By AMANDA DRANE
NORTHAMPTON — The city’s public health director, Ben Wood, will be leaving for another job after serving the city for two-and-a-half years.
Wood accepted a higher-paying position with the Massachusetts Department of Public Health, Board of Health chairwoman Donna Salloom told Northampton Media. His last day will be June 7.
At Thursday’s monthly Board of Health meeting, Wood cautioned members to scale back the job description for the post as interest does not appear high for the $57,567 position.
“It’s going to be hard to find someone who fulfills all of this. I certainly didn’t,” Wood said after members discussed requiring applicants be Certified Health Officers.
An exam is required for that certification, and to be eligible a candidate must have several years of experience in health administration, Wood advised during the meeting. This would rule out recent graduates, a peer group that board member Suzanne Smith said are “not for this job.”
Board members said that upping qualifications for the position may not be practical.
“We do not offer a competitive salary,” Salloom said.
When Wood, then a Ph.D. candidate in public health at the University of Massachusetts, was hired in 2009, the department faced a backlog of restaurant inspections. It was also reeling from the resignation of two health directors in quick succession. Longtime health director Ernest Mathieu resigned in 2008, and his replacement, Xanthi Scrimgeour, only lasted a year.
Salloom said back then former Mayor Mary Clare Higgins “took a strong stand” in insisting the health director have a background in inspections, but board members instead hired Wood, who viewed public health “through a much wider lens.” A staffer was hired to help with inspections.
“And it worked. It’s a model we’d like to continue with,” said Salloom.
Wood’s resignation comes as the city’s public health delivery system is in transition. The city council passed legislation in 2010 to expand the volunteer Board of Health from three to five members appointed by the mayor instead of elected by the city council, with the public health director answering to the mayor instead of to the board.
The expansion of the board required a change to the city’s charter and a special act of legislature, which hasn’t been granted yet.
The new director will be chosen in collaboration with Mayor David Narkewicz, Salloom said.
The city’s health department is in charge of inspecting restaurants, body art establishments, dumpsters, public beaches, housing complaints, septic system installations, and more. The board sets public health policy in the city, including regulations on public tobacco use.
Smith closed the meeting by thanking Wood for “truly exceptional service” and for transforming the department from its former “pathetic state.”
“My concern is that there aren’t any more Ben Woods out there,” Smith said.
© Northampton Media