Plan pits mayor against hospital service area board

Homer hospital's negotiations set to change under proposal

Posted: Monday, July 30, 2007

Kenai Peninsula Borough Mayor John Williams is clear about how the upcoming negotiations for South Peninsula Hospital's sublease and operating agreement should be run.

"I and my staff will handle in total the negotiations," Williams said.

If the mayor gets his way, the procedure to have the new sublease and operating agreement in place by April 2008 would exclude the nine elected members of the hospital's service area board from actual negotiations, but would allow them to express their concerns and desires to the mayor for consideration.

An ordinance that would make the South Peninsula Hospital Service Area Boards's role and responsibilities similar to those for Central Peninsula Hospital in Soldotna, was introduced at a borough assembly meeting July 10.

"The vote on the introduction of that authority ordinance was 6-2, so I anticipate they will grant us that authority," Williams said. Assembly members voting against introduction of the ordinance were Deb Germano, representing Homer, and Milli Martin, representing the southern Kenai Peninsula. The assembly's ninth member, Grace Merkes of Sterling, was absent.

The ordinance, 2007-28, and Ordinance 2007-29, which also was sponsored by the mayor and seeks to remove language in borough code requiring any of the borough's 13 service area boards be given a 90-day notice before powers granted by the mayor be rescinded by the mayor with assembly approval, are scheduled for public hearing and a vote at the assembly's Aug. 7 meeting.

In Williams' way of thinking, the role of contract negotiator is part of the borough mayor's job description. And he is making plans to fill that role.

"We are going to set up a series of meetings and work diligently toward bringing about that agreement prior to expiration of the contract on April 8, 2008," he said. "I want to emphasize this is a partnership. I'm working for the best interest of the hospital and the people it serves. I have no hidden agenda with regard to these negotiations."

During negotiations, Williams said operation of the hospital would continue on a day-to-day basis until a new agreement is reached.

A contract termination, rather than a contract extension with South Peninsula Hospital Inc., is being drafted by the borough at the mayor's request.

The current operating agreement states that if any parties of the agreement intend not to extend or renew the agreement, that intent must be communicated to the other parties in writing at least 180 days prior to expiration of the contract.

"I prefer not to have an extension of an old agreement. I want us to move ahead diligently to complete a brand new operating agreement," Williams said. "It is not my intention to extend the agreement, nor my intention to enter into an extension in any way, shape or form."

The mayor's approach to negotiations has drawn criticism.

"We read the contract to say we want to issue a notice that we want to begin negotiations," said Barbara Howard, president of the South Peninsula Hospital Service Area Board. "We didn't read that you had to terminate it to start anew."

Walter Partridge, president of the hospital's operating board, said replacing the contract with a day-to-day operating agreement creates a negative negotiating atmosphere.

"What that told me quite clearly is that they want us to clearly understand that when they come to the table, we can take what they want to give us or we can lump it," he said. "That's the clear message I got. So, I'm very interested in what he fully intends to deliver to us as opposed to negotiate with us. I call that a stipulated agreement as opposed to a negotiated agreement."

Also criticizing Williams' approach were Martin and Germano, who recently announced she will be leaving the assembly Oct. 1.

"I think what the mayor has expressed to us is that he is concerned about problems at the hospital, mainly the operating losses at the hospital. That's a legitimate concern," Germano said. "I don't have an issue with that. My issue with the mayor is the way in which he chooses to go about things."

The hospital's current fiscal year showed a cash loss of $683,000, according to Partridge.

For now, keeping emotions out of the picture is Williams' advice.

"We have to look from the academic view, not the emotional view," he said. "Sometimes that's hard to do. I appreciate that fact, but we're in a business here."

McKibben Jackinsky can be reached at mckibben.jackinsky@homernews.com.

Assembly President Ron Long, of Seward, said the vote for introduction of an ordinance does not foreshadow the results of a pass-fail vote.

"The vote on the motion to introduce is strictly on whether the ordinance should be introduced," Long said. "It has nothing to do with how an individual might argue the merits once it's on the table."

Last fall, Germano said, she suggested to the mayor the need for training on roles and responsibilities as a first step in developing lines of communication.

"That includes the (service area board), operating board, mayor's office, assembly members, everybody to be on the same page in order to start a conversation," Germano said. "Instead, I think we've got egos that are bruised and instead of trying to sit down and communicate and work together, we've got what we've got now. I'm so frustrated about it because bullying is not how you find solutions."

Germano said the assembly's role is important to remember.

"The borough is not a dictatorship. The assembly must be involved in this conversation. We do have a final say-so in it," she said. "Until the assembly approves his (Williams') plan, his plan doesn't exist. All it is is a proposal."

Martin also expressed concern about the mayor's approach.

"I think that it would have been appropriate to have contacted all signatories and say, 'OK, we are going into negotiations, looking at major changes, these are the changes we're anticipating, when can we get together and discuss this?' That would have been the logical way. That's what I would have preferred to see."



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