Newly redistricted Memorial Hospital board faces recall threats and criminal investigation.

On Board: SVMH board member Nathan Olivas (right), won’t be eligible to run again until 2014; he prefers a South County seat be up for election in November. “I think there’s a greater need there,” he says.

Ayear of demographic data crunching intended to end racial polarization isn’t enough to keep the peace at Salinas Valley Memorial Hospital. 

Immediately after a divided hospital board last week voted 3-2 to submit its redistricting proposal to the U.S. Department of Justice, recall threats began. Salinas High School teacher Phillip Moore signaled the end of the March 7 board meeting by shouting, “Start thinking about your recall.” 

The rumblings come as the hospital board and former CEO Sam Downing face a criminal investigation for forging relationships with business partners with whom they had personal financial interests, according to the findings of a state audit released March 8.

But it didn’t take the audit to infuriate the board’s critics. “All the audit does is confirm concerns that many have been raising for months,” says John Borsos, secretary treasurer for the National Union of Healthcare Workers. “We never had any confidence with [the board] to begin with.” 

The union, which represents some 750 hospital employees, plans to initiate a recall of the three-person majority that voted to keep itself in power until 2014: Board President Jim Gattis and board members Deborah Nelson and Harry Wardwell.

The board’s proposal includes a map that would transition the board from an at-large body to one with five districts based on geography. Currently, four of the five board members live in what’s slated to become District 4, comprised broadly of the Highway 68 corridor, South Salinas and Marina.

The proposal also includes a phased election schedule, which would trigger elections in the two districts with the largest percentage of Latino voters this November – and lock out the two dissenting board members, Nathan Olivas and Pat Egan, from seeking re-election. 

Assemblyman Luis Alejo, D-Watsonville, along with labor groups and activists from a loose organization representing Latino interests known as “the coalition,” support placing all five seats up for re-election in 2012. 

“The over-concentration of political power in District 4 would be unfortunate and unfair to members of the hospital district,” Alejo stated. “Choosing any other combination of districts up for election in November 2012 will come at the detriment of the community.” 

Salinas resident David Serena led the coalition’s efforts to start the redistricting process in January 2011. Now, he plans to submit a letter to the DOJ requesting to put Gattis, Nelson and Wardwell up for re-election this fall.

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Still, he’s willing to wait until 2014. “A recall might accomplish what we want, but it takes a lot of money,” he says. “No matter what, we’re going to win because we already forced district elections.”

Borsos says 2014 is too long to wait, “Not with the damage that they’re going to do between now and then.” Olivas, the sole Latino on the hospital board, and Egan, the lone East Salinas resident, are both considering another run in 2014.

Gattis plans to finish out his term, but says he won’t seek re-election in 2014. He dismisses the recall effort, and a full five-seat election, as misguided: “The people that voted for us, it would disenfranchise them.” 

The proposed election schedule, he adds, is based purely on demographics: “Had we voted to hold elections in [Egan’s district], we’d be accused of trying to protect a non-Latino incumbent.”

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