New planning board to oversee health in Harford, after contentious council debate

The Harford County Council voted to create an 11-member "healthy community planning board" during its Tuesday meeting, which an obesity task force had earlier recommended.

The legislation that was approved was met with some controversy, however, as some council members, including Joe Woods and Dick Slutzky, questioned the purpose and possible redundancy of creating such a health board.

Councilwoman Mary Ann Lisanti explained there are smaller counties in Maryland with much better health rankings than Harford, which has higher rates of obesity, smoking and alcohol and drug use than the rest of the state.

Slutzky asked what is the ultimate purpose of the new board, noting he does not want to regulate the type of food or drinks people can buy, for example, as has been proposed in New York or Baltimore. The council itself is designated by law as the County Board of Health in charge of appointing the county's top public health official.

Lisanti said the bill is "absolutely not" about legislating anything specific but is only about getting government entities to work together on public health initiatives.

"It's about working together and providing partnerships," she said. "The idea here is for government folks to work together and have fluid access to public policy."

Slutzky fired back: "What part of this can't we do without this board?" He asked whether it was not possible to tie different parts of the government together without this legislation.

John Mallamo, who spoke about the bill prior to Tuesday's vote, said different cultures have always regulated what people can consume and talked about the Tuskegee experiment and other examples of what he called "science run wild."

He said even the title of targeting obesity "sounds ominous" and called the bill unnecessary, counterintuitive and counterproductive.

"Personally, I don't want any public health nanny telling me I will die from lead poisoning because I drink fine bourbon from a crystal glass," Mallamo said. "You are now considering a bill that will infuse government into the personal lives of people."

Sheriff's Office Major Christina Presberry, meanwhile, strongly supported the board.

She recalled the deaths of two deputies, one from a heart attack, last year.

"At the Sheriff's Office, it made all of us question our life. Are we doing all we can do for our health? And a lot of us said, no, we're not," Presberry said. "Establishing a board like this is a win-win for every member of this county."

County Health Officer Susan Kelly said the idea of giving health "a place at the table" was a major goal of the obesity task force, which recently completed its final report.

"The purpose of this board is to advocate for healthier lifestyles and to support the choices of those who [want] to improve their life," she said, adding that much of obesity is pre-determined by environmental factors and how people grow up.

Slutzky said he does agree with the ideas the legislation was promoting.

"I believe in every part of this… I'm just not convinced that this is the responsibility of government to do these kinds of things," Slutzky said. "I believe the objective is noble; I believe the process is leading to government controlling more and more aspects of public life."

Council President Billy Boniface, however, noted it is a non-binding bill and the committee will strictly make recommendations.

He said government departments often "have blinkers on," which can make it hard to cooperate with each other and create a lot of redundancy.

"I actually believe in the cause. You are what you eat; that's a big component of this. I think awareness and education is the biggest thing we can do," he said. "I know there's freedoms in this, and if you choose to eat a Big Mac and a Big Gulp, that's your choice."

Boniface said the county nevertheless has a responsibility to educate the public on the consequences of unhealthy food choices.

Living Treasure

Also at the meeting, former state Del. Bill Cox, who served in the General Assembly from 1971 to 1990, was recognized as a Harford Living Treasure, which was a surprise to him.

Lisanti said Cox was tricked into coming and has made a point of never stepping foot in the council chambers since his time in Annapolis.

A co-founder of the Greater Bel Air Community Foundation, which raises money for public benefit projects, Cox represented Harford in Annapolis from 1971-91. He lives in Bel Air, where he also owns and operates a real estate brokerage.

Metal detectors

Visitors to the council chamber in Bel Air Tuesday were greeted by a new metal detector and signs warning that anyone could be subject to a physical search.

Security guards said the metal detector is one of three new ones delivered to Bel Air government buildings recently.

Another one was placed at the main entrance to council office building on South Bond Street, and the third is a replacement for the detector at the Circuit Courthouse on Main Street.

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