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Hospital lawsuit accord falters

The City Commission was willing to put its legal fight against the Tarpon Springs Hospital Foundation on hold and try to resolve the conflict in a different way. But another party to the battle doesn't like that idea.

Different interpretations of the leases for Helen Ellis Memorial Hospital prompted the bitter three-year lawsuit that went to trial in Pinellas-Pasco Circuit Court in March. The city owns the property, and the foundation runs the hospital.

The judge is expected to rule within three months, but the City Commission had voted to ask for a delay if everyone could agree to negotiate new leases to replace the ones at the center of the controversy.

Rewriting the leases is a good idea, but the judge's ruling is also needed so the public will know which side was right all along, Health Facilities Authority Chairman John Tarapani said Thursday. The authority, also a party to the suit, arranges tax-free financing, leases the hospital property from the city and subleases it to the foundation.

"The judge's ruling gives someone standing," Tarapani said. He said he expects Judge Crockett Farnell to declare that the authority and city were not involved in "conspiracies and clandestine activities" against the foundation, as the foundation alleged in its lawsuit.

The other members of the authority agreed with Tarapani at a Wednesday night meeting.

Two weeks ago, after the City Commission met privately to discuss the dispute, Mayor Frank DiDonato said rewriting the lease might be the only thing needed to resolve the conflict. If the other groups in the suit agreed, they would have asked for Farnell to hold off on his ruling.

But the city's lawyer said in a letter to the hospital's lawyers that a month would be the longest practical delay. The lawyers felt that a longer delay would dull the judge's memory of the testimony in the case.

Because they felt the testimony generally helped the city's case, they wanted it to be fresh in the judge's mind.

Tarapani said a month is far too short a time to draft the complex legal documents needed to finance bonds worth more than $50-million.

"It would certainly take longer than 30 days to advertise and select a qualified (law) firm for these matters," he wrote.

He said the authority has long advocated writing a new lease. But there is no reason that cannot happen along with _ not instead of _ Farnell's ruling.

City Manager Costa Vatikiotis agreed. The ruling would clarify the past dealings between the parties, and a new lease would define their roles in the future, he said.

DiDonato said Thursday that he would rather have all the groups forget about the times they have offended one another in the past and focus only on the future by working out a lease.

It is risky to let the judge decide the case, because there is no telling what he might do. The city might come out better under a new lease than under Farnell's ruling, he said, and it would be certain of the outcome.

"If the city negotiates a strong lease that satisfies the three entities and protects the taxpayers of this community, then we have won," he said. " "We' meaning all of us."

Settlement talks have broken down numerous times over the course of the lawsuit, but DiDonato said he hopes that would not happen again if the parties tried to agree on a new lease. He acknowledged that the fight has become an epic battle for some of the people involved.

"They've fought this issue for 3{ years, and some people, after you fight that long, are just bent on getting a favorable decision," he said.

Hospital officials could not be reached Thursday afternoon to comment.