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National Guard colonel named acting superintendent of Holyoke Soldiers’ Home

By STEPHANIE BARRY | masslive.com | Published: December 16, 2020

HOLYOKE, Mass. (Tribune News Service) — Soldiers’ Home in Holyoke trustees on Wednesday beat back an effort by state officials to name a new acting superintendent for the facility, instead voting unanimously to appoint their own pick.

National Guard Col. Michael Lazo, the new chief operating officer for the beleaguered state-run home for veterans, will replace outgoing interim administrator Val Liptak as she heads back to her post as CEO of Western Massachusetts Hospital on Dec. 20.

All seven board members voted to appoint Lazo during a special meeting. Lazo was an employee of Rhode Island Hospital assigned to the Holyoke Soldiers’ Home in response to COVID-19, according to his online profile.

Liptak was hastily appointed by the state on an emergency basis to replace former Superintendent Bennett Walsh, ousted as COVID-19 ripped through the facility in March, ultimately killing 76 veterans. Dozens more residents tested positive for the virus, as did 81 staff members.

Walsh and former medical director Dr. David Clinton since have been indicted in Hampden Superior Court for criminal neglect in connection with the outbreak. The pair pleaded not guilty to the charges in November.

The appointment of Lazo over state officials’ preference — Robert Engell, a Longmeadow resident and administrator at Overlook Masonic Health Center — represented a victory for the trustees. The board tussled in court with the state over who maintained final authority to appoint a permanent or acting superintendent. A Hampden Superior Court judge ruled the trustees held that autonomous power under state law.

Trustees Chairman Kevin Jourdain conceded state officials appointed Liptak, but highlighted that it was during a time of dire straits for the home when quick action was required by Gov. Charlie Baker’s administration. At the end of March, when the death toll began to climb, the state sent in emergency staff and the National Guard to help stabilize the home and quell the virus.

Amid a shuffling of staff, Baker appointed Cheryl Lussier Poppe as secretary of Veterans’ Services after former Secretary Franciso Urena was forced to resign as a result of the outbreak. Poppe served in leadership roles at the Chelsea and Holyoke soldiers’ homes prior to that appointment.

“We really want to collaborate with the board on the appointment of a permanent superintendent. ... But I know we will be respectful to agree to disagree” in the meantime, Poppe said during Wednesday’s meeting.

Lazo’s appointment was swift, following an executive session of the board.

“Mike has worked very closely with Val. ... I wholeheartedly support him to be the leader for the next two months, three months, whatever it takes for us to fill this role,” Jourdain said when trustees returned to open session. “The authority of appointment is crystal clear in statute.”

Jourdain added that state officials are attempting to tweak the quirky state law that affords the trustees sole authority to appoint the superintendent.

“If they had the authority in statute, there wouldn’t be a need to change the statute,” Jourdain said. “It’s been the board’s position and the court’s position that this is under our authority. It’s black-letter law at this point and this has been upheld by judicial opinions as well.”

Lazo’s appointment comes amid an ongoing debate over whether the superintendent should have more military or health care expertise.

The vote followed a lengthy presentation of plans to build a new Holyoke Soldiers’ Home.

Related Content:

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State Senate passes $1.4 million in budget increases for Holyoke Soldiers’ Home

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