September 16, 2019

Hospital must be more open


Over the last couple of months, West Branch Regional Medical Center has received a tremendous amount of criticism in the wake of the firing of Chief Operating Officer Jerry Worden by hospital CEO Ed Napierala.

Through three special meetings involving either the West Branch City Council and the WBRMC Board of Trustees — one that actually involved both — one of the biggest complaints from members of the public, as well as employees of the hospital, is that the administrators and the board are not transparent enough.

As a municipal health facility, WBRMC is bound by certain laws that govern any municipal facility or government group. One of those laws is the Open Meetings Act, which requires that certain business is conducted in a public forum, and gives rules and regulations stating how that business can be conducted. We feel the hospital has not been abiding by the Open Meetings Act.

For example, at times throughout the year, the board of trustees attends what it calls “retreats,” where the board gets together for “educational conferences” as stated by WBRMC Director of Communications Sally Ann Whitener. As we understand, they are not open to the public. However, at many, if not all of these retreats, the board has a quorum, which means a majority of the board members are in attendance.

Per the Open Meetings Act, when a quorum is present to discuss business, regardless of whether a vote is taken, that is a meeting and needs to be posted and open to the public. The board recently held a retreat at the Forward Conference Center where, as stated by Napierala at the Jan. 27 WBRMC meeting, the board covered “the switchover (process of affiliation) and the future of the hospital, from our current municipal status.”

Napierala was describing the retreat to Cardiologist Mark Sierra, who is also the president of the medical staff, as he was being invited to attend.

“We’ll totally bring the entire med exec up to date,” Napierala said. “We’ll talk about what’s left, and how much time the attorney thinks this might take.”

We think this sure sounds like business is being discussed at this retreat. As a matter of fact, board Vice President Pat Burkheiser even specifically called the retreat a “meeting” immediately after Napierala’s invite.

We’ve also heard from at least one current board of trustees member that there was discussion held by the board during said retreat.

The Open Meetings Act gives a number of exemptions of when the act does not require a meeting, but nowhere does it say that business can be discussed outside of a public meeting. The act states that it “does not apply to a meeting which is a social or chance gathering or conference not designed to avoid this act.” However, we feel that these retreats are specifically designed to avoid the Open Meetings Act, and thus would be a violation.

And according to the Open Meetings Handbook available on the website of state Attorney General Bill Schuette, a “decision” doesn’t necessarily have to be a formal vote.

“The OMA defines ‘decision’ to mean ‘a determination, action, vote, or disposition upon a motion, proposal, recommendation, resolution, order, ordinance, bill or measure on which a vote by members of a public body is required and by which a public body effectuates or formulates public policy,’” the handbook states. “All deliberations of a public body constituting a quorum of its members shall take place at a meeting open to the public.”

“To promote openness in government … the OMA is entitled to a broad interpretation and exceptions to conduct closed sessions must be construed strictly,” the guidebook says. “Thus, the closed session exception does not apply to a quorum of a public body that meets to discuss matters of public policy, even if there is no intention that the deliberations will lead to a decision on that occasion.”

The Herald intended to ask the board of trustees about this at its most recent special meeting, held Feb. 12. However, at the beginning of the meeting, board Chairman Dan Stoneback informed those in attendance at the meeting, as he often does, that the board would not be hearing public comment during the meeting unless those wishing to comment had called in advance and requested to be placed on the agenda.

We feel this is also a violation of the Open Meetings Act.

According to the act, “A person shall be permitted to address a meeting of a public body under rules established and recorded by the public body. The legislature or house of the legislature may provide a rule that the right to address may be limited to prescribed times at hearings and committee meetings only.”

But the act doesn’t say that the board can outright not allow public comment at all.

The attorney general says that the board can adopt a rule imposing individual time limits for public comment, but cannot limit the public comment period itself.

“But a rule limiting the period of public comment may not be applied in a manner that denies a person the right to address the public body, such as limiting all public comment to a half-hour period,” the handbook states.

By forcing members of the public to request to be placed on the agenda in advance, the board is denying them the right to address the public body, and thus is in violation of the Open Meetings Act.

Many of the members of the public and the employees the hospital do not trust the current board and administration. They’ve requested that both become more transparent. By dodging the Open Meetings Act, even if the board does not have nefarious intent, it certainly implies that it does.

If the board wants to appease its critics and become more transparent, it could start by following the Open Meetings Act that it is governed by.


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