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Hospital summit is trial of good faith

With the help of "divine intervention," the two sides feuding over Helen Ellis Memorial Hospital have agreed to sit down and talk. And a potentially disastrous referendum over the future of the hospital has, for now, been canceled.

Both items are good news. Ministers from the Tarpon Springs Ministerial Association helped negotiate an agreement between the city and the Tarpon Springs Hospital Foundation that at least will get the two parties to the negotiating table. That's a big step forward, since the two sides weren't speaking to each other.

In exchange for the foundation's agreement to talk, the City Commission canceled the three questions on the July 25 referendum that would have asked voters whether the city should sell the hospital to the foundation, sell to another non-profit entity or use "whatever legal action it deems appropriate to influence the management of Helen Ellis Memorial Hospital," including replacing the board of directors of the foundation.

However, the hospital foundation didn't exactly leap to the negotiating table. From the beginning, the foundation board has dragged its feet when it came to talking to the city. The board's decision to seek a partnership with Columbia/HCA without involving the city in the decision first raised the city's hackles. Then the foundation was reluctant initially to give information about the proposed deal to the city, which owns the hospital building and land. Even a week ago, when the ministerial group thought a truce between the two sides had been reached, the foundation got cold feet about the language in the two-page agreement. It finally signed the agreement.

We hope the foundation will come to the negotiating table in good faith. This is, after all, a hospital built on public land, an institution that has been close to the hearts of Tarpon Springs residents for decades. The foundation owes the community a good-faith effort to resolve questions about who has authority over the hospital's operations and over decisions to affiliate with new partners.

We understand the foundation's frustration with some city officials' politicking, but the foundation's reluctance to discuss issues in public makes it appear suspect and contrary.

As for the city's role in all this, we find its game-playing with referendums appalling. Many Americans regard the right to vote as precious. But Tarpon Springs officials are using the right to vote as a political lever.

What had been merely suspected before became clear last week: City officials set a referendum on the hospital's future to threaten the foundation board, probably never intending to go through with it. Even now, city officials warn that the city will reschedule the referendum for November if hospital officials aren't cooperative during negotiations.

Now it also is clear why the city seemed unconcerned about the enormous problems that passage of any of the referendum questions would have created. The city was playing a game of chicken with the hospital, counting on the hospital foundation blinking first. The city spent thousands of dollars in taxpayers' money for staff time and newspaper ads to pursue the game.

Keep in mind that this commission that so easily uses the right to vote for leverage is the same commission that refused to give Tarpon residents the right to vote on the hospital's proposed partnership with Columbia/HCA.

City officials have defended their decision to schedule a referendum, saying that the foundation left them no other choice.

But if the city had exhausted all other approaches _ and we are not sure it had _ then going to court to resolve legal questions about the city's authority at Helen Ellis Memorial Hospital would have been a more honest and straightforward way to handle the dispute.