LOCAL SPIN: Business Unusual
A lesson in community engagement through SVMH.
Thursday, March 22, 2012
Hazel Tompkins seemed bemused at the sight of all of her new-found compatriots. Until recently, I overheard her saying, she often found herself mostly alone in the audience at the regular meetings of the Salinas Valley Memorial Hospital board.
That time, though, has passed.
At the March 7 board meeting, when the three-person board majority voted to keep its power base in office, all but assuring the only East Salinas board member (Pat Egan) and the only Latino member (Nathan Olivas) are nearing the end of their terms and prevented from running again for two years, it was standing room only.
The vote came as the district moves from the at-large elections that has seen the board’s membership concentrated along the Highway 68 corridor – Corral de Tierra and San Benancio – to district elections that will ensure representation throughout the region. The plan now has to be approved by the Department of Justice.
The board’s attorney recommended beginning the transition by holding elections in the two districts with the highest population of voting-age Latinos because it’s the plan most likely to be approved by the DOJ. Because of the new district lines, Egan and Olivas can’t run to keep their seats.
The vote engendered a lot of anger. As Salinas High teacher Phil Moore put it, it creates a situation in which the two board members who have been most opposed to some of the board’s ham-handed decisions in recent years are being tossed aside by the very majority making those decisions. “I will take that as a very clear political statement,” Moore said.
“We’re in a Catch-22,” said board chair and Salinas businessman Jim Gattis. “If we do one thing, we’re accused of not favoring an incumbent. If we do another, we’re accused of trying to protect an incumbent.”
He’s right. In doing the right thing, the board did the wrong thing. And vice versa. What most audience members considered to be the right thing – putting all five seats up for election at once – is unheard of for a public board. A new slate of board members would ensure a complete lack of continuity or institutional memory.
The vote came about eight hours before the state auditor released a scathing report on the inner workings of SVMH, one that has resulted in a recommendation that the District Attorney investigate possible conflict-of-interest violations. The audit’s truism, that care has never suffered at SVMH, has been lost in the discussion surrounding some of the audit’s findings. State Auditor Elaine Howle is making an unprecedented trip to Salinas on Thursday for a town hall discussion.
A smart person asked me: “Do you think there’s anything to [the audit], or is it just business as usual?”
It’s probably a little bit of both. The auditor found 11 instances between 2006 and 2010 in which board members reported an economic interest in vendors used by the hospital district. The hospital paid $21 million to such vendors; the audit called out two particular instances for investigation by the District Attorney and the state Fair Political Practices Commission. There’s just no way to softpedal it: It’s a criminal investigation.
For a long time, friends doing business with their friends using public money was business as usual. If, as Egan has suggested, it took place with approval of the board’s attorney, it’s time for the board to find an attorney with better knowledge of conflict-of-interest law.
But maybe business as usual was acceptable when everyone was getting what they needed, when the jobs were plentiful and SVMH was on a seemingly unstoppable trajectory to become a world-class center. When people were using their home-equity lines of credit to keep the economy screaming, and when hospital bed nights were up because people had the cash to pay for medical care they might otherwise put off.
That time has passed.
Business as usual saw the hospital district paying former CEO Sam Downing nearly $5 million in supplemental pension and severance pay on top of his existing six-figure pension. It saw the board authorizing supplemental pensions of more than $3.1 million to five executives who are retiring this year. It still sees an interim CEO (whose contract was due to expire at the end of 2011) bringing in $10,000 a week, plus upwards of $1,500 a week in expenses, as he tries to get SVMH stable enough to find a mate. And Cain Brothers, the investment bank trying to find SVMH a match, will make millions if an acquisition takes place.
The auditor’s town-hall meeting: Thursday night, March 22, Salinas City Hall, 5pm.
The time to leave Hazel Tompkins sitting in the audience by herself has passed as well.
MARY DUAN is the Weekly’s editor. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org or twitter.com/maryrduan.