Should CPGH board operate in open?

Borough officials examine procedures that leave them in dark on hospital plans

Posted: Tuesday, March 21, 2000

Gene Dyson thought something was amiss when he was denied full access to a Feb. 24 board meeting of the nonprofit corporation that runs the publicly owned hospital in Soldotna.

"A couple of minutes into the meeting, I was told to leave," said Dyson, who is an elected member of the Central Kenai Peninsula General Hospital Service Area Board.

He said that exemplifies the lack of communication and public access that make it difficult for the board to assess existing central peninsula health care services and identify unmet needs.

"The hospital historically has been what I'd call a closed system," service area board chair Jim Clark said during the group's Wednesday meeting in Soldotna. "... We have certainly experienced that as a board. We have made requests for various things and had our requests criticized, with those things we requested never forthcoming."

The Kenai Peninsula Borough owns the hospital, and the service area raises about $1 million per year in property taxes to help support it. Nonprofit CPGH Inc. leases and operates it.

Hospital critics are off base, said Bob Molloy, the corporation's attorney.

"The borough does have access," he said. "The borough can review any financial documents they want to review. There is no question about that."

Diana Zirul, CPGH Inc. board president, said her board holds part of every meeting behind closed doors to set policy and discuss contracts and personnel issues. However, Molloy said, part of every meeting is open to the public, and that is when the board deals with service area matters and items that require borough approval.

"CPGH Inc. is entitled to have private meetings on other items, and that's not in conflict with the lease," Molloy said.

The borough signed its contract with CPGH Inc. in 1997. The same year, the assembly passed an ordinance creating the elected board to advise on service area matters. In 1998, it passed a resolution directing the new board to make recommendations on CPGH Inc. proposals that require assembly approval and on requests for service area funds from CPGH Inc. or other groups.

The resolution also directed the service area board to identify available health services and unmet needs and recommend how to address the latter. The board wrote bylaws and goals and sent them for assembly approval in January. The assembly postponed action while controversy brewed. The issue is on the assembly's agenda tonight in Soldotna.

The draft goals include hiring a consultant to inventory existing health services and identify unmet needs. They include requesting "copies of all plans, market studies, needs assessments, consultants' reports and other documents which guide CPGH's current and future operations."

The service area actually made that request in a Nov. 22 letter to CPGH Inc.

Clark said the service area needs such information to make informed decisions about new services and to avoid duplicating studies the hospital already has done.

Zirul said the request was too broad, and she asked for clarification. She said the requested documents may contain proprietary information: When the hospital considers offering new services, it must do so privately, so that potential competitors do not find out.

On March 6, the service area board narrowed its request to a study done by a private contractor, the hospital's five-year plan for equipment purchases, and its master facility plan. Clark said the service area board is willing to discuss sensitive material behind closed doors. He said CPGH Inc. has no justification to cloak everything in secrecy.

At Wednesday's meeting, the service area board saw Borough Attorney Colette Thompson's March 14 response to the CPGH Inc. claim that its bylaws and policy on public access to board meetings are proprietary and confidential.

The contract with the borough says CPGH Inc. board meetings "will be open to the public as provided in its articles and bylaws," Thompson wrote.

The contract says, "repeated or flagrant failures to conduct open meetings as provided in the articles and bylaws will be grounds for the borough to terminate this agreement."

CPGH Inc. eliminated provisions on public access to its board meetings from its bylaws and wrote a policy on that issue instead, Thompson wrote. She claimed the policy, like the bylaws, is a public record.

Molloy said he received Thompson's letter only Wednes-day, and the CPGH Inc. board has not yet replied. It will discuss the issue at its March 30 meeting. However, he said, the bylaws are internal documents.

"They are not required to make them public," he said.

Borough Mayor Dale Bagley said his administration has been working with CPGH Inc. to resolve the issue. He declined to say whether it threatens the corporation's contract.

"Whether we need to enforce the contract with CPGH Inc., that's something we need to decide," he said. "That's something we're working on."

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