What Are They Hiding?

by Malcolm Macdonald, April 13, 2016

Not many noticed, but part way into the March 31st Mendocino Coast Hospital (MCDH) Board of Directors meeting two members of that body's Finance Committee got up and left. One of those Finance Committee members could only be described as ticked-off.

Why? Anyone who had attended the MCDH Planning Committee meeting nine days earlier would have seen the reason right there on that Planning Committee meeting's agenda.

Item VI of the March 22nd Planning Committee agenda states, “Joint Committee Meeting W/ Finance [Committee] & Board [Re] Hospital Fee/Hospital Structure 3/31/2016.”

The major item of new business at the Thursday, March 31st MCDH Board of Directors meeting was a telephone presentation from attorney Lloyd Bookman (from the firm of Hooper, Lundy & Bookman) regarding what he termed a hospital provider fee that might bring in millions of extra dollars if MCDH is willing to become a private non-profit hospital whose day to day operations would be under the direction of its own non-profit board. This matter had been discussed at the March 22nd Planning Committee get together, but without Mr. Bookman's verbal input.

At the March 31st meeting of the full MCDH Board of Directors Mr. Bookman outlined the hospital provider fee program then answered a few questions from Board members, Chief Executive Officer (CEO) Bob Edwards, and Chief Financial Officer (CFO) Wade Sturgeon. When they were done Board Chair Tom Birdsell started to bring the gavel down. Board member Bill Rohr pointed out that a member of the Finance (and Planning) Committee had a hand up. Birdsell stated that he was following Robert's Rules of Order and there would be no questions from the public. Gavel down. Boom. No questions, no Joint Committee Meeting W/ Finance & Board.

Mr. Birdsell, who took over the chair of the MCDH Board in January, made a statement to the effect that there would be no questions, no input from the public on agenda items unless they were designated as public hearings. This proves quite the contrast to Fort Bragg City Council meetings, including the one from three days before. On March 28th the City Council allowed lengthy public comment during its “Conduct of Business” session. The items in question were not even “action” items, but matters in which the city council was merely seeking input in order to give further direction to city staff.

The Fort Bragg City Council not only takes input on such non-action items, it also provides for public comment on non-agendized items early in the meeting and near the end of the meetings as well. Under Mr. Birdsell's chairmanship there is no provision for public comment after or during agenda matters titled “New Business,” “Old Business,” and “Reports.” The “New Business” section of the agenda contained six separate items, not only including the aforementioned presentation by Mr. Bookman, but proposed changes to the Board of Directors Bylaws. There were at least nine “Reports” on the agenda.

Mr. Birdsell may be speeding up MCDH Board meetings by employing his sense of Robert's Rules of Order, but he is ignoring the basic tenets of the Brown Act, which states in its opening paragraphs, “In enacting this chapter, the Legislature finds and declares that the public commissions, boards and councils and the other public agencies in this State exist to aid in the conduct of the people's business. It is the intent of the law that their actions be taken openly and that their deliberations be conducted openly.

“The people of this state do not yield their sovereignty to the agencies which serve them. The people, in delegating authority, do not give their public servants the right to decide what is good for the people to know and what is not good for them to know. The people insist on remaining informed so that they may retain control over the instruments they have created.”

With all the public attention given to Fort Bragg's City Council over the past couple of years, it is interesting, if not downright alarming, how few citizens outside of hospital employees attend the MCDH Board meetings let alone the empty chairs at MCDH Finance and Planning Committee gatherings.

All of this takes us back to that March 22nd MCDH Planning Committee meeting at which CEO Bob Edwards declared a letter, that was discussed at some length, was not going to be released to the public because it was, according to Edwards, a “trade secret.” Unfortunately for Mr. Edwards the California Health and Safety Code Section 32106 states that “trade secrets” are to be discussed in closed sessions. As was pointed out to Mr. Edwards at the time, something already discussed at an open and public meeting is inherently subject to further public scrutiny.

Mr. Edwards thinks otherwise. Anyone listening to the discussion in the March 22nd MCDH Planning Committee could tell that the letter Mr. Edwards wants to hide under a claim of “Trade secrets” was about the very same topic Mr. Bookman spoke to the MCDH Board about on March 31, the possible conversion of MCDH to a different kind of private non-profit entity. Further in the California Health and Safety Code this is addressed. “Nothing in this section shall be construed to permit the board of directors to order a closed meeting for the purposes of discussing or deliberating, or to permit the discussion or deliberation in any closed meeting of any proposals regarding: The conversion of any district health care facility to any other form of ownership by the district.”

Mr. Edwards appears intent on hiding as much as possible about the present and future goings on at MCDH from the public. The new chair of MCDH's Board, Mr. Birdsell, better be careful he is not a tool in such shenanigans.

(Malcolm Macdonald's website is: MalcolmMacdonaldOutlawFord.com)

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