Openness at heart of dispute between board, CPGH Inc.

Posted: Sunday, March 26, 2000

The chairman of a local service area board tried again last week to make an issue of openness at the nonprofit corporation that runs the public hospital in Soldotna.

Members of the Central Kenai Peninsula Hospital Service Area Board say CPGH Inc. has not supplied copies they requested of hospital plans and studies.

"They want to bulldoze all the opposition. That was getting old before, and it's getting old now. They have to work with the service area board. They're not making any effort to do that."

-Jack Brown, Borough Assembly Member

"Openness is one of the questions I think is before the assembly, openness in contracting, which you have rented $40 million of public funds for about a dollar a year, and whether or not that business can be conducted in a closed, secretive kind of way," Jim Clark, chairman of the service area board, told the borough assembly Tuesday. "I don't envy you the task of defending that position."

However, the assembly did not discuss that issue Tuesday. Assembly President Bill Popp of Kenai said openness falls under the borough's contract with CPGH Inc., which is under the purview of the borough administration. So far, he said, the administration has not asked the assembly to address the issue.

But Nikiski assembly member Jack Brown said the corporation seems to want everything its own way.

"They want to bulldoze all the opposition. That was getting old before, and it's getting old now," he said. "They have to work with the service area board. They're not making any effort to do that. They're using Tim (Navarre, borough assembly member) to put the service area board in a tiny little box where they're not going to be effective, and that's wrong."

Brown said he thinks the CPGH Inc. board meets too often behind closed doors. In the early 1990s, he sponsored an amendment to the borough's contract with CPGH Inc. that required corporation meetings to follow the spirit of the state Open Meetings Act. The borough's intent has not changed, he said.

"If they continue to violate the concept of having open meetings I'm going to ask -- and I think a lot of people will ask -- the mayor to find them in violation of their contract," he said.

But Navarre, who represents Kenai on the assembly, said borough and CPGH Inc. attorneys have been discussing what information should remain confidential.

"After we get that clarified, I'm sure the hospital will act accordingly," he said.

CPGH Inc. president Diana Zirul said the corporation board will discuss the issue at its Thursday meeting.

"We do provide documents as required in the contract, and we've never failed to do that," she said.

Earlier this month, Robert Molloy, the corporation's attorney, said the borough has access to hospital financial records. Zirul said her board holds part of every meeting behind closed doors to set policy and discuss contracts and personnel issues.

However, 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.

On March 15, the service area board saw Borough Attorney Colette Thompson's response to the CPGH Inc. claim that its bylaws and its 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," she 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. struck provisions on public access to its board meetings from its bylaws and wrote a policy on that issue instead, she wrote. She claimed the policy, like the bylaws, is a public record.

Molloy said the bylaws are internal documents.

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

Clark disagreed, saying CPGH Inc. has not complied with the service area board's Nov. 22 request for "copies of all plans, market studies, needs assessments, consultants' reports and other documents which guide CPGH's current and future operations."

He said his board needs such information to help identify unmet health care needs and recommend ways to address them -- a task the assembly assigned it in 1998.

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

CPGH Inc. asked for clarification, she said. 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. Zirul said the CPGH Inc. board will discuss that request Thursday.

On Tuesday, the assembly amended the draft bylaws submitted by the service area board eliminating its proposed duty to advise on community public health policy. The new preamble, suggested by Soldotna assembly member Pete Sprague, says the board will "review and recommend the annual service area budget, and perform additional functions as the assembly may authorize."

Navarre, who helped write the changes, said the board still could ask the assembly for permission and funding for projects such as a needs assessment. The assembly postponed voting on the amended bylaws until April 4.

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