Access denied: Hospital board again shuts doors to public

Posted: Sunday, April 02, 2000

The nonprofit corporation that runs the hospital in Soldotna is sticking to its guns.

Despite an increasingly hot debate over public access to meetings of the CPGH Inc. board, which oversees operation of the publicly owned and funded Central Peninsula General Hospital, the corporation is refusing to conduct its meetings in the open.

"We are a (501(c)(3)) nonprofit corporation. We do not have to have open meetings," Dolly Farnsworth, vice president of the CPGH Inc. board, said during last week's meeting of a separate panel that advises on hospital service area matters.

When the CPGH Inc. board met Thursday, it dealt with service area matters in open session, then asked the public to leave.

Corporation president Diana Zirul did provide the Clarion with a copy of her board's agenda. According to that, the secret portion of its meeting included topics ranging from the hospital's overall capital equipment budget to medical staff education, a schedule of April meetings and a report from Quorum, the hospital's management consultant.

The Kenai Peninsula Borough owns the hospital, and the Central Kenai Peninsula Hospital Service Area raises about $1 million per year in property taxes to help support it. Nonprofit CPGH Inc. leases and operates the $40-million hospital under a contract signed in 1997.

The first 55 minutes of Thurs-day's CPGH Inc. board meeting were open to the public. The board approved its agenda, minutes from a prior meeting and the hospital's February financial statements. It heard a plea from former state Sen. Suzanne Little to keep its meetings open. It considered several service area matters, though none of the supporting documents were available to the public.

"That concludes the open portion of the meeting," Zirul said.

During the open portion of the meeting, Little said that in the Senate, she had a big part in rewriting the Alaska Open Meetings Act. The press, the Alaska Municipal League, and the University of Alaska had concerns, she said. Administrators of publicly owned hospitals wanted to be sure they could hold closed meetings of their operating boards in order to discuss items that should remain private.

The Legislature made amendments to accommodate such concerns, she said.

"For instance, we made amendments to the Open Meetings Act which allow public-owned hospitals' operating boards to meet in private to discuss physician privileges or physician discipline," she said.

However, Little said, she disagreed with the CPGH Inc. policy that its meetings should be closed to the public.

"You maybe have figured out a way to make your meetings legally closed," she said. "But I'm certainly imploring you to reconsider, because it's a bad idea. We need to know -- the public needs to know -- how the public's assets are managed."

Regardless of any legal justification for closed meetings, she said, "the perception that you are all deceiving the public will always be present -- no matter if you are, or if you're not. ... I don't believe that y'all just saying, 'Just trust us,' is going to be good enough."

CPGH Inc. should follow the Open Meetings Act, she said.

"I believe it protects matters that ought to be private," she said. "It requires open discussions about the rest."

Zirul refused to give a reporter a copy of a resolution the board passed in open session approving its capital equipment budget request to the borough. She declined to explain items listed in the resolution. She said she would forward that information to the borough, and the Clarion could obtain it there.

She declined to clarify the CPGH Inc. board's answer to a service area board request for information. She said she did not want the service area board to read about the corporation's answer in the newspaper before she could write it a letter.

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," and "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, Thompson wrote. She claimed the policy, like the bylaws, is a public record.

Robert Molloy, the corporation's attorney, said the bylaws are internal documents.

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

Last month, Zirul said her board would discuss public access during Thursday's meeting. It did not hold that discussion during the public portion of its meeting. The agenda listed "Borough Attorney Letter, March 2000" and a report from the ad hoc committee on bylaws and policies as topics for the closed portion of the meeting.

Also last month, Nikiski assembly member Jack Brown said that 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.

The assembly formerly functioned as the membership of CPGH Inc. During Wednesday's meeting of the service area board, Farnsworth said things changed when it relinquished that role. After the assembly pulled free, the corporation had to file new articles, she said. It also amended its bylaws.

"Now, there is nothing wrong with a (501(c)(3) nonprofit corporation) having private meetings, closed meetings," she said. "They're allowed to do that. We are not the borough entity."

That is what the lease and operating agreement says, she said.

"It says that the assembly and the borough will not interfere with the operation of the hospital board, and that the employees are our employees and nobody else's," she said.

Farnsworth said the Central Peninsula General Hospital charges the second-lowest rates of any hospital in Alaska. With CPGH Inc. running the hospital, the assembly has been able to lower service area property taxes.

"I can't see why there is such a fuss about this closed meeting and that we're doing things in secret," Farnsworth said. "All of our efforts that this board does is to provide the best possible and cheapest service to the people in the service area."

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