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Hiring process raises questions

The names and qualifications of the candidates to replace Newell France as president of Tampa General Hospital are a mystery to most of the people who work for and use the 971-bed public hospital. But Keith Southerland, a consultant who works for Witt Associates Inc. in Dallas, knows a lot about the candidates. In fact, next month Southerland and his team will select and recommend six to 10 candidates they feel are best for the job.

That has at least three Hillsborough County Hospital Authority Board members worried.

"I would like to know, as a member of this board, exactly who the minority candidates are," said C. Blythe Andrews, publisher of the Florida Sentinel-Bulletin, at a meeting Thursday of the hospital board's officers.

Andrews, who is black and serves as secretary of the board, said he thinks board members, not a private consultant, should openly select the finalists for the job of hospital president. By asking an outsider to secretly select the finalists, Andrews said, potential minority candidates could be eliminated unfairly.

"A lot of it becomes subjective," Andrews said. "I just want to make sure everybody is given an opportunity."

County commissioners who serve on the board, Jan Platt and Sylvia Kimbell, said last week they also want to see a complete list of the candidates.

"I want an open process," Kimbell said. "I would like to have a whole list of everybody they've called."

Florida law requires government officials to inform the public of their meetings and provide records of the meeting to the public. The law is informally known as the "Sunshine Law."

Although Tampa General is public, hospital officials say information about job candidates is not subject to the law because Witt Associates is a private company.

Witt Associates is recruiting candidates from about 300 to 500 health care professionals across the country, Southerland said. Those who have heard about the position, from notices or from Witt Associates, and who want to be considered, have submitted their resumes to the firm.

The 20 resumes received so far were sent to Tampa General last week and made available to the media and public. The finalists, however, do not necessarily have to come from the applications. Southerland can select some or all of the finalists from other sources.

Southerland said he has worked closely with black organizations such as the National Association of Health Service Executives and the National Association of Public Hospitals to ensure that women, blacks and other minorities are considered for the job.

But, he said, the firm has not revealed the names of all the potential candidates because not all are sure they want to be considered.

"There are a lot of people on the fence who are considering the job," Southerland said. "If their name gets in print . . . and it gets back to the community, it could cause problems for them."

Ralph Dell, the hospital's attorney, said the law does not require a government board to reveal the names of job candidates that a private firm considers. Only the names of people who actually apply for the job must be made public, as was done by Tampa General, Dell said.

"We have employed a private firm to do certain things and then come in to the board," Dell said. "That portion, selecting finalists, is not public record or sunshine."

But George Rahdert, a media attorney with Rahdert & Anderson, the firm that represents the St. Petersburg Times, said the names of all candidates Witt Associates is considering should be made public, not just the applicants.

"The records they have are public record as soon as they are created," Rahdert said. "If they are refusing to provide it, it is a violation of the public records law."

Rahdert said a 1980 Florida Supreme Court decision prohibits consulting firms hired by government bodies, including a public hospital, from keeping records private. They must conduct business in the same open way that a Florida government board does, Rahdert said.

"The distinction between who has applied and who they are pursuing does not make any difference in the law," Rahdert said. "Anything that they generate which records information about this process should be publicly available."

Witt Associates Inc. is receiving $50,000 to $75,000 to search and screen candidates for France's job. The company is supposed to present a list of six to 10 finalists in mid-July. The board then will interview all the candidates.

The position is expected to pay $150,000 to $220,000 a year.

France, 62, will earn $164,465 this year. He announced his resignation earlier this year, but said he wants to remain at the hospital as a consultant.

His replacement is to join the hospital's staff by Oct. 1.