Acting Gov. Richard Codey has stripped the Public Health Council, created in 1947, of its considerable power weeks before the independent body planned a controversial vote on water fluoridation.
Critics called the move a “power grab” by the governor, and the chairman said he and some other members of the council likely will resign in protest when the changes take effect Aug. 26.
“Our job is to protect the public health, and we do what we think is right or wrong regardless of the politics. We’re independent. This is what I call a power grab,” said chairman Robert Pallay, a family practice physician in Hillsborough.
The all-volunteer council, appointed by the governor, was created by the Legislature nearly six decades ago and was given wide powers to create regulations in areas such as food safety, blood collection and childhood vaccination.
In recent years, the eight-member council has drafted safety rules for tattoo parlors, updated requirements for local health officers, and examined cancer clusters.
Under Codey’s restructuring order, the council will only advise the state Department of Health and Senior Services, where its powers have been transferred.
“We feel it’s important that the commissioner of health and the governor have direct control and responsibility for all health policies and practices,” said Sean Darcy, a spokesman for the governor. Darcy said the decision had nothing to do with the impending vote on fluoride.
The state health department, in a written statement, noted the Public Health Council is the only agency within the department that has independent authority.
“This transfer order brings the Public Health Council in line with all other boards and commissions within the department,” the statement said.
Some in the field of public health objected to the changes.
“This is one more step to centralizing power in New Jersey government,” said David Knowlton, a former deputy health commissioner and president of the New Jersey Health Care Quality Institute, a nonprofit foundation. He said the council holds hearings and debates in the open.
“In public health matters, you want an objective view that’s transparent,” Knowlton said. Members of the council have included doctors, nurses, dentists and other health care professionals.
Two sources said Codey did not want the council to move forward with the water fluoridation vote without input from the health department and the governor’s office. The sources said the governor stripped the council of its powers when it went ahead anyway.
The council took up fluoride after the New Jersey Dental Association petitioned it to vote on the issue. Right now, 15 percent of the state’s water supplies are fluoridated, a percentage far below the national average. The dental association said fluoridation will reduce tooth decay in children, particularly those who have poor access to dental care.
The council has held several public hearings attended by fierce opponents of fluoride, who have complained that the council has too much power.
“They don’t have to listen to the Legislature or even the department of health. They are not elected officials. This (the fluoride vote) is a slap in the face to the democratic process,” said Nancy Browne Coleman, president of New Jersey Citizens Opposed to Forced Fluoridation.
The health department or the Legislature could still mandate the fluoridation of New Jersey water.
The Public Health Council also has been debating another controversial plan, this one to require that nurses be present during blood drives. Though nurses generally support the requirement, some members of the council do not believe the measure is necessary.
The transfer of power takes effect Aug. 26, unless the Legislature votes against it before then. Such a vote is unlikely, though, since the Legislature, which just finished the budget, is not scheduled to meet again until the fall.
Pallay said he does not know if the council will try to vote on fluoride before the changes take place Aug. 26. He also said he does not know if the majority of council members support the fluoride plan.
Another council member, Jeffrey Carson, a doctor of internal medicine at the UMDNJ — Robert Wood Johnson Medical School in New Brunswick, said he was disappointed by the transfer order.
“We spend a lot of time working on issues. We have expertise and we provide an independent set of opinions,” he said. “I think we were going in directions that were politically sensitive.”
Carson said he has not decided whether he will resign.
“I’m leaning toward resigning,” he said.
Carol Ann Campbell may be reached at email@example.com or (973) 392-4148.