Mayor Clashes with Council on Wellness Center Issues, Calls It ‘Nonsense’

Heading into Monday night’s City Council committee meeting, Ward 6 Councillor Michael McLaughlin was looking for the answers to 41 questions from a half-dozen city officials regarding the controversy surrounding the operation of city’s Health and Wellness Center.

But what he got was a heated showdown with Mayor Carlo DeMaria, who read a nearly 15-minute overarching statement which the mayor said addressed all the issues raised by McLaughlin that could be answered without violating city personnel policies.

DeMaria accused McLaughlin of political showboating and overstepping his bounds as a councillor in McLaughlin’s recent vocal criticism of the operation of the Health and Wellness Center. DeMaria wound down his prepared remarks with a letter from former First Lady Michelle Obama praising the nearly five-year-old Health and Wellness Center.

The meeting then degenerated into a confrontation between the mayor and the councillor as they wrangled over the exact job description that was held by Karen Avila, who resigned early this year after her credentials were called into question and were later revealed to be forged.

DeMaria maintained that Avila was never the director of the Health and Wellness Center, but the city’s Health and Wellness Director, and that Nick Bertone has been responsible for the daily operations of the center since he was hired in 2015.

“Karen was the director of Health and Wellness, which is a distinction from the director of the Health and Wellness Center,” said DeMaria.

However, after the mayor ended his remarks, McLaughlin read from what he said was a printout from an early version of the City’s website that listed Avila’s position.

McLaughlin claimed that until recently, the website listed Avila as the director of the Health and Wellness Center, while the mayor continued to maintain it listed her as the Director of Health and Wellness.

At one point during the exchange, the mayor appeared to lunge forward in an attempt to take the printed paper from McLaughlin’s nearby desk, prompting McLaughlin to loudly tell the mayor not to get into his space.

“You are out of line,” the mayor said, while McLaughlin said the mayor was out of line.

Time and again during his remarks, the mayor called into question McLaughlin’s motivation for taking a strong stand on the Health and Wellness Center controversy, and he highlighted the success of the programs at the center over the past five years.

McLaughlin had presented his 41 questions to the City Council’s Committee on Government Operations, Public Safety, and Public Service for DeMaria and several administration officials, including Omar Easy and Lara Ammouri.

But it became apparent early in the meeting that the committee, chaired by Ward 3 Councilor Anthony DiPierro, would not be getting a question by question reckoning from individual officials.

“I am here to speak on all the issues with the DeMaria administration,” said the mayor. “There has been a great deal of reportedly false information about the Wellness Center that has been exaggerated”

DeMaria continued that McLaughlin was “carrying water” for a newsletter published in the city and “smearing good people who work for the city.”

“When you are spreading false rumors, you are doing us all a disservice,” said DeMaria.

The mayor also claimed McLaughlin was working in concert with another local newspaper to discredit his administration.

There is still some question about where the issue goes from here, as DiPierro said he believed the issue was put to bed by the mayor.

“The issue is over in my eyes,” he said. “I think the mayor answered all the questions.”

However, Councillor-at-Large John Hanlon moved to refer the issue back to the motion’s sponsor, McLaughlin, to give him more time to sort through the mayor’s statement. Hanlon said sorting through answers to the 41 specific questions sought by McLaughlin will take a little time.

For his part, DeMaria said he will not come before the Council again to discuss the Health and Wellness Center controversy.

“If you invite me again to answer this nonsense, I will not be back,” said DeMaria.

Visibly upset as he left the meeting, McLaughlin was asked if he was satisfied with the answers DeMaria provided.

“How could I be?” he said. “There were no answers.”

He said he could not comment any further on the matter aside from that.

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