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Truce signed in hospital spat

Published Oct. 4, 2005

A truce to help end a feud between city and hospital officials almost didn't happen Saturday because of a verb.

Lester Garner, the president of Helen Ellis Memorial Hospital's governing board, agreed that the two sides should discuss their differences. But he nearly backed off from signing an agreement that includes "developing" ways to resolve them.

"I think we're willing to discuss; whether it "develops' into anything remains to be seen," he said.

Garner's initial reluctance, along with that expressed by other hospital officials, raised the ire of some city officials who had worked with Garner and hospital administrator Joe Kiefer to draft the agreement before Saturday's meeting between the two sides.

"Let's start going with this," Mayor Anita Protos said.

Garner ultimately acquiesced and, along with Protos, signed the agreement, which also calls for removing questions about the sale of the hospital from a July 25 citywide ballot. Removal of the questions is subject to a vote by city commissioners.

About 75 people gathered Saturday at the city's community center on Walton Avenue to watch the exchange between city leaders and hospital board members during a morning meeting organized by the Tarpon Springs Ministerial Association.

The two sides had come together to begin mending the rift that began six months ago when the hospital negotiated _ without input from the city _ a partnership deal with Columbia/HCA Healthcare Corp. The hospital foundation owns the license to operate Helen Ellis, a 150-bed, not-for-profit hospital.

But the city owns the hospital's land and buildings off Alt. U.S. 19, and in April, commissioners killed the deal struck with the large for-profit chain.

The dispute has since escalated to include the issue of what role the city should play in the hospital's governance.

The debate has divided the city, prompting the aid of local ministers toward a resolution.

Pastors Bert Swearingen and Brad Ridenour helped hospital and city leaders construct the agreement, which is intended to be the first step toward working out the problems.

"Let's get this show on the road," Swearingen said when it seemed as if the agreement might not be signed.

Several main tasks are covered in the agreement, such as defining the city's role at the hospital and reviewing the foundation's bylaws.

A committee will be put together to talk through these issues and resolve them by Sept. 1.

In exchange, the city has agreed to remove three referendum questions about the hospital from the July 25 ballot. The ballot is still scheduled to include unrelated questions about a lease at the city's golf course and the sale of a nursing home.

If talks make no progress toward a resolution of the hospital issues, then the referendum questions will be put on a November ballot, Protos said. The questions concerned sale or lease of the hospital, as well as possible legal action by the city to remove the hospital foundation board.

Commissioner Dudley Salley demanded cooperation.

"I want some concessions from the foundation board," he said.

City Manager Costa Vatikiotis said changes need to be made, not just talked about.

"If the idea's just to sit around and chew the fat, I've got better things to do," he said.

After the meeting, resident Jessie Burke said she doesn't want commissioners to cancel the referendum.

"I want the people of this city to have a say," she said.

But Commissioner Cindy Domino urged everyone to make this deal work.

"Today is the new beginning," she said. "Forget what has been said. Forget what has been done."

The commission is expected to ratify the agreement at its meeting Tuesday.