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Hospital trustees' private meeting for public business

If the trustees of the Citrus Memorial Hospital believe they can do a better job running the publicly financed hospital than the current foundation, they have a funny way of showing it. Meeting in private with a state legislator in apparent violation of the state's open meetings law is no way to build public trust.

Three of five board members, all gubernatorial appointees, recently met privately with Rep. Ron Schultz, R-Homosassa, in Tallahassee to lobby for a bill that would change the hospital's oversight. The 198-bed hospital, supported by property taxes in Citrus County, is managed by a nonprofit foundation hired by the board of trustees two decades ago under a 97-year lease. SB 2752, sponsored by Sen. Charlie Dean, R-Inverness, and its companion HB 1475, introduced by Schultz, would give control of the hospital back to the trustees by giving them a majority of the seats on the foundation board.

All five trustees used to sit on the 13-member foundation. They resigned simultaneously amid disputes over the hospital's finances and long-range business plan and behind-the-scenes accusations of power grabs and political payoffs. The foundation argues that Citrus Memorial is a well-run hospital operating at a deficit because it is too reliant on low-paying Medicare patients. The trustees contend the hospital is poorly managed by a foundation that blows money without accountability.

Dean introduced the legislation after a state audit revealed, among other things, that foundation directors and hospital executives failed to properly document their spending while indulging in expensive retreats that included bar tabs and spa sessions. Of more concern, the foundation operated amid a potential for numerous conflicts of interest, including spending $228,000 to lease office space from two of its board members and allowing two foundation members to short-list contractors for a $4 million construction project before declaring interests with the company awarded the job.

Though Schultz is listed as the House sponsor of the proposed legislation, he has said he does not support it. Trustees Upender Rao, Deborah Ressler and Michael Smallridge held an unannounced meeting to try to change his mind. The hospital board is a public body required under Florida's Sunshine Laws to publicly advertise its meetings in advance.

Trustees said they didn't believe they did anything wrong. They should think again. The open meetings laws are clear, and members of the same public board cannot meet unannounced and in private to discuss public business. A group championing more accountability of hospital finances would be wise to remedy its own clouded transparency before proceeding.

Hospital trustees' private meeting for public business 04/19/10 [Last modified: Monday, April 19, 2010 7:35pm]
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