Monday, July 13, 2015

Trying To See Through The Smoke In Mansfield

This column originally appeared in the Sun Chronicle on Monday, July 13, 2015

GOUVEIA: Clearing the air on Mansfield smoking age change

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Posted: Sunday, July 12, 2015 10:02 pm | Updated: 1:27 pm, Mon Jul 13, 2015.
When the board of health in Mansfield decided to raise the legal age to buy tobacco and nicotine products from 18 to 21, they knew there would be some concern and complaints.
But they were probably a bit surprised to discover some on the board that appoints them to their positions wants to tell them how to do their job.
After several meetings and at least one public hearing on the topic, the board of health handed down a decision banning the sale of such products to anyone under 21 within town limits. This is not unique. Neighboring Foxboro has a similar restriction. The actual vote of the five member body was 2-1 in favor of the ban, with one member abstaining and one absent.
The action was of great concern to some selectmen, who appoint the members of the board of health. Selectman Olivier Kozlowski brought it up at a recent board meeting, leading to a discussion of both the procedural aspect of the vote itself, and the wisdom of the decision.
Kozlowski questioned the fact the ban was not instituted by a clear majority. He and Selectman Frank DelVecchio said that was not proper, and DelVecchio wondered aloud if it was even legal.
If they had stopped there, selectmen would have been well within reasonable boundaries for questioning the actions of another board or committee. But they didn't, and they weren't.
Kozlowski made a motion requesting the board of health to reconsider its vote. It ended up failing when only he and DelVecchio voted for it, but during the discussion Kozlowski made it clear his objections were philosophical as well as procedural.
Several members discussed the impact on local businesses who sell tobacco products. The fear was young people (and others) would cross into Norton or Attleboro to buy their tobacco, thus economically impacting Mansfield storeowners.
Calling the action an insult to young people, Kozlowski said it was akin to saying "they don't trust them to make their own decisions." He went on to add, "It's frankly a slap in the face to anyone between 18 and 21."
Then the discussion turned to making sure selectmen were "more careful" in vetting those who they appoint to boards and committees in the future. Kozlowski made essentially a not-so-veiled threat to the board of health when he said. "We'll see what happens at reappointment time."
First of all, it is unseemly at best for selectmen to be lobbying at their own public meeting to get a board they appoint to change a properly taken vote. If they wanted to influence the decision, they should have been at the public hearing. Or they could have written a letter expressing their feelings, which Kozlowski actually did.
But using their office as a bully-pulpit to try and intimidate their appointees into doing their bidding is both wrong and classless. While not all board members were doing that, some most definitely were.
There is nothing wrong with selectmen holding their appointees accountable. They have a right to demand a certain level of performance and objectivity. But they have no right to expect those they choose to vote a certain way on controversial issues.
The point about the 2-1-1 vote has merit. All members should have been present at the board of health meeting for such an important decision. If the chairperson were in favor of taking more time to gather information as she said, she should have voted against the motion rather than abstaining. Taking no position is pretty much an abdication of responsibility.
But board of health members are the selectmen's appointees, not their surrogates. They are there to exercise their judgment, not that of selectmen. Whether the board agrees or disagrees with any decision, they need to let the responsible party make it.
Imagine the board of health scheduling an agenda item at its meeting to discuss the selectmen's decision on local liquor license regulations (where the legal age is 21, by the way). How would selectmen react to that? Would they tell the other board to stick to their own business? It would be hard to blame them if they did.
If the board of health vote had been 1-2-1 against the ban, would selectmen have still publicly questioned the process? Perhaps - but I doubt it.
Ah, politics. Sometimes it's hard to see through the smoke.
Bill Gouveia is a local columnist and longtime local official. He can be emailed at and followed on Twitter at @Billinsidelook.

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