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Disdain for the public

Published Oct. 1, 2005

Board Chairman H. L. Culbreath is hardly in a position to denigrate public concern over the future of Tampa General Hospital. After all, it was the hospital board, under Culbreath's tutelage, that met secretly to hone a consensus, if not a strategy, for taking the hospital private.

For Culbreath to complain now of an "atmosphere of hysteria" _ an inflammatory and inaccurate choice of words _ reflects a chairman out of touch with his public responsibilities.

In an open letter Tuesday, Culbreath characterized recent disclosures by board members as "speculation" that was "disappointing and dismaying," and which could be "detrimental" to the future of Tampa General.

"If we had to face this kind of hysteria every time we studied an option," Culbreath wrote, citing news reports, "we'd never make any progress."

Culbreath's obsession with group-think ignores a simple fact. Residents have been unusually open-minded about the hospital's secrecy, mostly because saving Tampa General is worth the benefit of the doubt. If Tampa General is threatened financially by its public ownership, as Culbreath believes, then trustees and taxpayers alike will only benefit from a full and open debate.

By throwing his boomerang of misplaced blame, Culbreath squandered a critical opportunity to draw together all sides. His letter went to local media, elected officials and "community leaders" _ hardly a cross-section of Hillsborough, and certainly not representative of the needy who rely on the hospital for charity care.

Dr. Bruce Siegel, the hospital president, said he is committed to preserving Tampa General's mission. But how far can you trust Siegel or hospital trustees, who already dodge public accountability?

Six months of secret meetings have created a monster. The contempt for Florida's open-government laws shown by Siegel and the board is matched only by their condescension toward those who object. Last week, the hospital denied a move was afoot to co-opt Tampa's black community; this week, Siegel met with 50 black Tampa leaders behind closed doors. This is exactly the sort of deal-greasing that Florida's Sunshine Law is designed to prevent. Does no one among the leadership have the conscience to object?

The board now moves forward with a serious credibility problem. Siegel says one thing and does another. Culbreath wags a finger. The county commission makes an extraordinary call for public hearings. A selected group of black residents is singled out for a sales job.

What remains to be seen is whether Siegel and his board have thought through privatization with any less disdain for the public than they have shown so far. The board has made a mess of its supposed public commitment. It has handed over the keys to lawyers, consultants and publicists, while ignoring the large and varied population that keeps the hospital afloat. The public is not the enemy of Tampa General; it is the owner. And it has a right inside the door.