Hospital board stonewalling requests for results of closed sessions

By Paul Sisson

March 21, 2009

OCEANSIDE – The Tri-City Medical Center board has spent several hours in a series of closed-session meetings over the last three weeks, but has released no new information on the fate of eight hospital administrators who have spent the past three months on paid administrative leave.

Meanwhile, the administrators have collected roughly $700,000 in salaries and benefits in that time, according to one estimate, and have spent their unwilling break “obsessively” looking for information that would help them return to work, their attorney said.

Board member Ron Mitchell said Thursday he could provide no details on the closed-session discussions, but said that the meetings – and the board’s inability to make a decision – have been frustrating.

The meetings are believed to center around an investigative report on hospital finances recently presented to the board by outside accountant Michael Williams. Hospital officials said previously the administrators were sidelined so that Williams could perform that investigation.

Last week, the hospital denied a California public records request filed by the North County Times seeking the results of the investigation. In addition, several hospital board members did not respond to telephone calls seeking comment on the issue.

Leslie Devaney, an attorney for the administrators, said neither she nor her clients have been told when they might be reinstated or whether any other action might be taken. She said she takes the recent closed-session meetings that end with no reportable action as evidence the investigation came up empty.

“If they had any substantial evidence of wrongdoing, they would have at that time said goodbye to our clients,” Devaney said, adding that her clients have not been shown the report.

The uncertainty began Dec. 18 when four hospital board members voted in a special closed meeting to hire Williams and put the administrators on leave. The action outraged three board members, including Mitchell, who weren’t present at the meeting and also caused an uproar among some hospital staff members and the public.

There has been little news from the board since then, though the administrators filed a lawsuit alleging the Dec. 18 meeting violated California’s open-meeting law known as the Brown Act.

On March 17, in a letter denying the Times’ public records request, hospital attorney Julie Biggs stated that “The record you have requested is exempt from disclosure because it was distributed in a confidential closed session meeting.”

Terry Francke, general counsel with the open-government group Californians Aware, said Friday that while there are exemptions to keep the report private under threat of pending litigation, the public records law is clear that the document should ultimately be made public.

“If you’ve got something, show your cards. If you don’t, take the discipline away,” he said.

Biggs did not respond to a subsequent question on whether or not the investigative report is likely to ever become a public record.

Devaney said she was told by Biggs that a “draft” version of the investigative report would be presented to the board in closed session on Feb. 26.

After that meeting, Biggs told the North County Times in an e-mail that the final report was not yet ready and that more information would be forthcoming in “mid-March.”

The board held another special meeting Tuesday which ended with no reported action taken.

Mitchell said last week that he and fellow board member Madeline Rodriguez left Tuesday’s meeting at 10 p.m. because both had to work in the morning. Mitchell said his departure also came out of frustration.

“I was just kind of frustrated (that) we can’t come to any decisions,” Mitchell said.

Though he declined to provide any details about the discussions, Mitchell said that he has not taken an active role in deciding how to proceed.

“I am not one of the four who decided to do this,” Mitchell said. “They need to resolve this thing.”

He had two words to describe the series of closed-door discussions: “It’s ‘leadership-less.’ ”

Mitchell said he is growing more concerned about the amount of cash that the hospital is paying to administrators that it won’t allow to work. He estimated the combined annual salaries of the eight at more than $2 million.

“That’s probably something like $600,000 or $700,000 over three months,” Mitchell said. “We’ve spent a lot of money so far, and we’ve spent a lot of money to pay people for not showing up.”

It was unclear Friday how much the hospital has spent on legal counsel to help conduct the investigation.

Devaney said her clients have been “obsessive” about gleaning whatever information they can, either through reports in the press or by keeping their ears to the ground, about the investigation.

She said few have spent much time relaxing during their three-month involuntary hiatus.

“They’ve been making their own public records requests,” Devaney said. “They’ve all been in the hospital in twos and threes looking at records.”