2017-10-13 / Front Page

City appoints new health officer

By Wm. Duke Harrington
Staff Writer

Joshua Pobrislo Joshua Pobrislo SOUTH PORTLAND — The city of South Portland has its first new health officer in nearly a decade.

At its Oct. 2 meeting, the city council voted unanimously to appoint firefighter Joshua Pobrislo to a three-year term, through Oct. 2, 2020.

Pobrislo replaces Steve Fox, who had held the job since 2008. After retiring as a deputy fire chief for the city in 2014, Fox agreed to stay on as health officer, foregoing the annual $1,800 stipend and asking only that the city cover the cost of his cell phone, which then city manager Jim Gailey pegged at “about $50 a month.” However, Fox announced recently his intention to resign from the post, opening it up for a new recruit.

Like a sealer of weights and measures, a health officer is a fairly archaic position, although the city is still required to have one under state law. The post dates to 1885, when the Maine Legislature authorized the creation of local boards of health. These boards had wide latitude to shut down theaters, concert halls and other public gathering spots and to isolate individuals during outbreaks of disease. Many boards exercised these powers with impunity during the “Spanish flu” pandemic of 1918, which killed about 5,000 people across Maine.

However, the following year, in recognition of the fact that combating influenza with more than 500 independent health boards had been a mixed bag of results — some towns, for example, pointedly kept theaters open to draw business when neighboring municipalities shut theirs down — the legislature transferred statewide health guidance to the new Department of Health, the forerunner to today’s Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention. Only the local health officer post was retained in the transfer and, today, the role is largely limited to acting as a local liaison to the CDC and reporting local health conditions and disease outbreaks to the state. Many other statutory duties that remain on the books, such as inspecting and ordering the removal of public health threats, are largely redundant with duties of the code enforcement officer.

The South Portland City Council no longer makes available applications submitted by its appointees. However, according to his LinkedIn profile, Pobrislo lives in Scarborough and has worked as a firefighter and paramedic for South Portland since 2006.

He graduated from the University of Alaska-Fairbanks in 2004 with an associates degree in municipal fire control and public safety.

He received his emergency medical technician (EMT) certification the following year with Huron Valley Ambulance in Ann Arbor, Michigan.

Pobrislo will receive the $1,800 annual stipend for his services as health officer, issued in weekly installments in his city payroll check.

An agreement signed Sept. 27 between City Manager Scott Morelli, Human Resources Director Don Brewer and leaders of the local firefighters union (International Association of Fire Fighers, Local 1476) clears the way for Pobrislo to take the side job, specifically noting that the hiring is a “non-precedent setting agreement” and that the local health officer job “is not a union position.”

In addition to working with the CDC in the event of a pandemic outbreak, the local health officer also may deal with other “environmental dwelling issues,” Brewer said, including “hoarding, bed bugs, head lice, and that kind of thing.”

“[We would] work with local health officials, nurses and that sort of thing, and homeowners, to mitigate those sorts of issues,” Brewer said.

“I am very pleased that Joshua Pobrislo has stepped up and shown interest in this position,” Brewer said. “He has a wealth of information from his background in public health. He wishes to pursue a second career once he retires from our firefighting force, which I hope isn’t any time too soon.”

In that event, Pobrislo could well follow the career path of another longtime South Portland firefighter.

At its Oct. 2 meeting, the council also appointed Louis Cavallaro as alternate local health officer, to fill in should Pobrislo be unavailable.

According to Brewer, Cavallaro retired Aug. 31 as a deputy fire chief for the city after 27 years with the department and now works as South Portland’s city safety coordinator. He will be paid an annual stipend of $250 for the added alternate health officer duty.

As a full-time safety coordinator, Cavallaro oversees compliance with risk management and loss control rules of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) while also developing city safety programs, policies and practices.

At the Oct. 2 meeting, Councilor Eben Rose noted that while the appointment is for three years, the local health officer position is actually mentioned in the city charter, where it is is described as having an “indefinite term” of office.

“A little bit of cleanup might be necessary,” he said.

None of Rose’s peers took him up on his offer to scrub the motion for inconsistencies and the vote went forward as a three-year term.

Staff Writer Duke Harrington can be reached at news@inthesentry.com.

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