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Tarpon may pull hospital issue off ballot

City officials have made a deal to drop the questions about selling Helen Ellis Memorial Hospital from a July 25 ballot as long as hospital officials continue to work with them to clear up some issues.

Mayor Anita Protos and Lester Garner, president of the hospital's governing board, are expected to sign the truce today during a 9 a.m. meeting in the Tarpon Springs Community Center, 400 S Walton Ave.

The two-page agreement says the two sides will begin regular meetings no later than next month and resolve their differences by September.

"Specifically, we need to repair the damage that has been done to our community, to the City Commission, and to the foundation board of directors, resulting from what we observe to be a huge communication breakdown," the agreement reads.

As long as those negotiations continue in good faith, the city will agree to pull the hospital issue from the referendum, which would be left with questions about a lease for the city's golf course and the sale of a nursing home.

City Manager Costa Vatikiotis said Friday that the hospital referendum was used to get attention.

"I'd be willing to bet the referendum isn't going to happen," he said.

Vatikiotis spoke Friday during an afternoon meeting Protos called to answer questions from residents concerned about the hospital and its relationship with the city.

City and hospital officials have been at odds for six months.

It all started when the board of the hospital's governing foundation negotiated last year _ without input from the city _ a partnership deal with Columbia/HCA Healthcare Corp., a huge for-profit chain.

The city owns the hospital's land and buildings, and in April, the City Commission scuttled the Columbia partnership.

The feud grew beyond the failed deal to include debate over what role the city should have in the hospital's governance.

The issue has divided the city as well as its leaders, often pitting friend against friend.

While the city owns the hospital's property off Alt. U.S. 19, the hospital foundation owns the license to operate it.

The commission last month approved the referendum questions on the hospital. The questions would ask voters whether they would like to sell the hospital to the foundation, to sell it to another non-profit group, or to take legal action to influence hospital management.

Commissioners approved the questions because they weren't convinced the hospital board would give them a say in major decisions affecting the hospital. But the newly proposed agreement has the two sides working out how much of a say that should be.

The agreement states that the two sides will:

Define clearly the city's role at the hospital with respect to issues such as affiliations and leases.

Reaffirm the foundation's authority to operate the hospital.

Give the city better representation in the foundation membership, such as a position on the board.

Have a committee review the foundation's bylaws.

Protos said the agreement was worked out between Vatikiotis, Garner, hospital administrator Joe Kiefer and herself with help from pastors Bert Swearingen and Brad Ridenour of the Tarpon Springs Ministerial Association. The ministerial association had offered to help bring an end to the feud.

Commissioner Cindy Domino said she supports calling off the referendum on the hospital.

"I think that's wonderful," she said. "I don't know what took the city so long to realize what it was doing was wrong."

Domino said she wasn't aware of the deal until told Friday night by a reporter.

"They keep me in the dark," she said.

About 25 people attended Friday's meeting, including hospital foundation board member Dan Vinson and City Commissioner Helene Pierce.

Some of the people there supported the hospital ballot questions being dropped.

"Quit trying to have referendums and confuse people," John Georgiadis said.

"Drop the referendum. . . . It did its work," Stanley Stone said.

Vatikiotis and Protos both said calling for the referendum was a last resort.

"We had no other choice, no other avenue to take," Protos said.